In a cityscape long associated with the flat, black facades of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the arrival of Helmut Jahn's State of Illinois Center was akin to Carmen Miranda crashing a black-tie ball. From the outside, where it boldly looks out on the classically styled City Hall-County Building and the monolithic Daley Civic Center, the State of Illinois Center is a scalloped structure of blue glass gridded by beams of salmon-red steel. The inside opens up into a dramatic, sunlit, 16-story atrium with balconied, curved floors and more of that delectable salmon-and-blue color scheme.
"Helmut Jahn's State of Illinois Center is the most cerebral, the most abstract, yet easily the most spectacular building ever constructed in the Loop," began Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp's initial critique of the building. "In a city where architects so long worshiped the 90-degree angle and black curtain walls, the center's asymmetry and multicolored skin appear as almost impudent nose-thumbing at the past." He was dazzled by the interior but turned off by the exterior, "a chunky wedge of little grace or elegance."It stands as one of the city's prime monuments to Postmodernism, a style that broke away from the rigid geometry of Modernism and freely employed decoration and forms from the past.
The audacity of the state center would have been unusual in any city structure, but this was a government building constructed with public funds: $172 million in the final tally, up from the originally budgeted $85 million. Indoor temperatures during the first two summers spiked to 110 degrees as a faulty air conditioning system proved no match for the sun blazing through the glass. The state spent additional millions to fix the problem. The General Assembly voted in 1992 to rename the structure the James R. Thompson Center after the four-term governor who chose Jahn's flamboyant design over seven more conservative ones.
The Bavarian-born Jahn, who previously won acclaim for his curved, Modernist-inspired Xerox Centre (1980) and his Art Deco Revival addition to the Chicago Board of Trade (1982), continued to put his mark on the city with his widely praised glass-and-exposed-steel United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport (1987). The Thompson Center also may claim as its legacy--though it may not want to--a new generation of glassy, color-happy, vertical shopping malls on North Michigan Avenue.