Starship Chicago

New doc spotlights Helmut Jahn’s threatened Thompson Center

Midwest Preservation
New doc spotlights Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center. Pictured here: The James R. Thompson Center atrium. (Rainer Viertlboeck/Courtesy JAHN)
New doc spotlights Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center. Pictured here: The James R. Thompson Center atrium. (Rainer Viertlboeck/Courtesy JAHN)

The nonprofit MAS Context is hosting the international digital premier of Starship Chicago: A Building on the Brink, a documentary by Nathan Eddy, chronicling the oft-misunderstood Helmut Jahn–designed James R. Thompson Center. The film was premiered at the Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam, with a U.S. premiere at the fall MAS Context: Analog event in Chicago. Later it was shown at the New Urbanism Film Festival in Los Angeles, and the Architecture and Design Film Festival in New York. The one-week showing on the MAS Context website runs through November 12, and it’s the first time the 16-minute film can be streamed online.

“I love these buildings, and I don’t think these buildings are appreciated. Helmut Jahn told me while making the documentary, ‘At some point every artist just makes a lot of noise.’ I know how to make a lot of noise,” filmmaker Nathan Eddy told The Architect’s Newspaper (AN). “That is the only way that people will pay attention in this day and age. I’m a controversy builder. I do these things because I cannot help myself.”

Completed in 1985, the Thompson Center is the hub of Illinois state government in the City of Chicago. From the moment it was constructed, it has turned heads and sparked debate. Today, the current governor, Bruce Rauner, has been adamant about his intentions to see the building either demolished or converted into a private property. Starship Chicago interviews many of Chicago’s most influential architectural thinkers to discuss the construction, legacy, and future of the iconic structure. The documentary includes conversations with James R. Thompson, the former governor who commissioned the building, the building’s architect, Helmut Jahn, architecture critics Blair Kamin and Lynn Becker, and architects Chris-Annmarie Spencer and Stanley Tigerman, among others.

The James R. Thompson Center is on Landmarks Illinois’s list of most endangered places. (Rainer Viertlboeck/Courtesy of JAHN)

Starship Chicago is the second short film by producer-director Nathan Eddy, whose first film, The Absent Column, covered the preservation battle for the eventually demolished Bertrand Goldberg–designed Prentice Women’s Hospital. Starship Chicago is the first vocal step in beginning the conversation about saving the Thompson Center, and Eddy is active in preservation battles elsewhere. Recently, he has led the charge to protect the Philip Johnson and John Burgee–designed AT&T Building in New York, whose granite facade could be replaced with glass in a Snøhettta-led redesign.

“I have one method, which is ‘WAKE UP!!!’ All caps with three exclamation points,” Eddy said, discussing the differences between The Absent Column and the Thompson Center film. “After Prentice, we made a great film that tried to appeal to people on an emotional level that would be poignant. That didn’t work and that sucked. When we were doing the film about the Thompson Center, we needed to re-evaluate the way we were going to make people wake up. So, I wanted to make the first comedic architecture documentary.”

Of the famed and derided atrium of the Thompson Center, former governor James R. Thomson remembers in the film discussions surrounding space. “I heard a lot of criticism at the time saying, ‘Boy, that is a lot of wasted space.’ And I would usually say something like ‘Well, would you like me to fill up the building with bureaucrats?’ So, it is not a wasted space, it’s a celebration of space.”

The film can be seen in its entirety exclusively on the MAS Context website.

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