In November 2018, news first broke of the five-firm shortlist competing to design the $8.7 billion Terminal 2 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The star-studded list held both international and local firms, and today, Chicago city officials have made public designs for each team’s proposal. Chicagoans and frequent fliers have until January 23 to vote for their favorite designs and offer feedback, here.

The O’Hare 21 expansion, which will expand O’Hare from 5.5 million square feet to 8.9 million square feet, is a pet project of outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel. O’Hare currently serves nearly 80 million travelers a year, and with demand projected to grow, the extant Terminal 2 (built in 1963) needs to be expanded.

The team of Colorado’s Fentress Architects, engineering and architecture firm EXP, Brook Architecture, and Garza Architects have proposed an undulating terminal with a ribbon-like canopy, held up by slender, full-length columns. A split in the terminal’s massing would allow natural light into the center of the building, a necessity given that the team has stacked more floors into its terminal than the other four.

Foster + Partners has been working with local firms Epstein and JGMA, and have produced a dramatically curved, cave-like terminal fronted by an enormous wall of glass. Foster’s terminal resembles a draped piece of fabric swaying in the wind that splits into three separate arched halls at the rear but opens to what they’ve dubbed a “theater of aviation” at the tarmac. The use of a crisscrossing truss system topped with glass creates a coffered ceiling effect while also allowing in natural light. From the renderings, it appears that the terminal’s interior will be clad in a warm wood finish.

Studio ORD Joint Venture Partners, the team formed by Chicago’s Studio Gang, Corgan AssociatesSolomon Cordwell Buenz, and STL Architects, was heavily influenced by themes of convergence and confluence. Three curves join in the middle to carve out space for a massive central skylight. The roof of each curve, formed from ribs that extend into the terminal’s interior, tent in the center; it appears the underside of each will be clad in timber. The team has described their proposal as one that’s layered but easy to navigate.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), who have partnered with  Ross Barney Architects and Arup, are proposing ORD, from a shortening of Orchard Field, the original name of O’Hare (unrelated to Studio ORD above). Although their plan is squarer than the others, the SOM team has also designed an undulating roof supported by coffered timber trusses. The roof would cantilever out over the terminal’s tall glass walls, and according to the video, ample landscaping that references Illinois’s nickname as “the Prairie State.” Intriguingly, the terminal would also include enclosed outdoor plazas, complete with tree-strung hammocks, for passengers to relax in.

Last but certainly not least, Santiago Calatrava and local firm HKS have presented the most ambitious of the five proposals (though it fits quite snugly within Calatrava’s oeuvre). Resembling a ship’s prow, the glass facade bulges in the center before terminating at a sharp point. Inside, large, unbroken spans are supported by Calatrava’s signature structural “ribs” to create a soaring interior space. The team has also proposed turning the existing parking area to the terminal’s rear into a landscaped “hotel, retail, and business complex,” though there’s no telling how much that would add to the budget.

The city and Chicago Department of Aviation are being pushed to make a decision before Mayor Emanuel departs in May of this year, and the project is expected to finish in 2026. Models of each team’s submission can be viewed at the Chicago Architecture Center until January 31, and Terminal 2 will be displaying the new designs digitally until the 31st as well.

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