In The Media September 14, 2021

“Public Pool” a Winning Design for Reimagining the Thompson Center

Proposed public waterpark, ground-level programs, hotel capture imagination of Chicagoans

A proposal from designers in our Chicago studio to reimagine the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago as 17-story water park and hotel is one of three winners in the 2021 Chicago Prize Competition for the possible adaptive reuse of the building that is now on the sales block. “Public Pool,” with swirling colored slides and gardens inside the soaring, curved glass façade, was selected from 59 entries across five countries, and will be on view through October at a pop-up exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Center ahead of an early November public forum discussing the future for the Thompson Center as the State of Illinois reviews the proposals for the purchase of the building.

“The Thompson Center is a significant public space in Chicago’s urban realm, and participating in this ideas competition was a tremendous opportunity to make the case for the Center’s reuse and preservation while re-imagining what public space can be,” said David Rader, who led our team. “In the context of global climate change, we as designers should seek every opportunity to reuse and repurpose existing structures instead of tearing them down.”

With its red, white, and blue tinted transparent glass, atrium and circular glass ceiling, the iconic, if controversial, Thompson Center stands out amidst both the modernist and classical buildings in Chicago’s Loop. The building—home to offices for state employees, commercial space, and a central transportation hub—also stands out for the decidedly mixed reviews it has generated since it opened in 1985. It’s either a soaring Helmut Jahn-designed post-modern gem of a civic center or a poorly ventilated and outdated structure facing huge deferred maintenance costs.

As our team noted in its submission, the building’s excessive glazing and high heat led original office occupants to wear bathing suits to work and use beach umbrellas for shade. “Instead of resisting the environmental effects of its architecture, the Thompson Center should embrace these greenhouse-like qualities and become an indoor waterpark set in a garden.”

Listed in the Landmarks Illinois’ annual Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois, the Thompson Center is now for sale and possible demolition. Against its colorful history and uncertain future, The Chicago Architecture Center and Chicago Architectural Club sponsored a competition to envision new life for the building through restorative architecture. Public Pool envisions pools and water features that replace existing programs at lower levels, and introduces new connections to the street-level plaza. Office space above ground level becomes a hotel, which actively engages the atrium with slides from the pools. Two monumental waterfalls complete the experience for park-revelers and the public. The atrium’s reimagined activity connects the building to the plaza, while a public roof park pulls nature into the sky.

We asked our team—led by David Rader and including Jerry Johnson, Ryan Monteleagre, Matt Zelensek—to describe the project.

How does the design respond to the iconic, even controversial, shape of the Thompson Center?

Our proposal starts with the Thompson Center’s atrium, a key space in Chicago’s public realm. The design preserves and reprograms the atrium by inserting a waterpark and garden into this volume. A large Atrium Pool, Splashscape, and Auditorium Pool are placed in the footprint of existing programs at the atrium’s base. From here, the activity and fun of the waterpark climbs vertically to engage the public at the ground level and hotel floors above. The design adopts the playful attitude of Jahn’s post-modern interior, with super slides that trace the atrium’s volume down to the pool, and waterfalls that project from the elevator cores. The atrium’s reimagined activity spills out into the urban core, with new operable walls at ground level that provide continuity between the energy of the interior and the life of the city.

The "Public Pool" design team presents their winning proposal for the competition.
How does the design promote accessibility and sustainability?

The design embraces the greenhouse-like qualities of the Thompson Center’s existing architecture to create an indoor waterpark set in a verdant garden. The public nature of the Atrium is preserved, maintaining access to active retail at the ground level, the CTA Blue Line, and Pedway tunnels. In the context of global climate change, we as designers should seek every opportunity to reuse and repurpose existing structures instead of tearing them down. Taking this approach with the Thompson Center would preserve a significant monument in the city and re-imagine what a great public space could be.

How could this design serve as a catalyst for drawing more people downtown to the Loop?

The reimagined Thompson Center is a fun place for all Chicagoans, not just office workers in the Loop. The design leverages the Center’s urban location and unique architectural features to create a destination that is completely unmatched in Chicagoland or any urban center in North America. Perkins&Will Chicago is actively involved in organizations that are working to improve and attract people to the Loop, including the Chicago Central Area Committee, AIA Chicago, and the Chicago Architectural Center.