Willis Tower Chicago Street Level Renovation Architectural Review


However, the addition of Olafur Eliasson’s wave wall along the new streetscape on Jackson is a positive note. Inspired by the movement and colors of Lake Michigan, it’s a great addition to our public sculpture Loop.

An earlier renovation had rendered the structural columns at the bottom of the building in lightly polished stainless steel. In contrast, Gensler’s designers doubled down on the dark gray of the tower’s exterior. The most striking feature of the new palette is the predominance of dark materials.

The dark gray steel, punctuated by similarly marbled gray brick, of the new exterior runs throughout the interior, though the brick often looks like it has been applied as high-end wallpaper.

The undulating skylight above the main dining hall at the Jackson Street entrance has a lot of work to do: it provides natural light on multiple levels, three at or above and two below.

On a recent sunny day, the quality of light was decent, but the sophisticated fritted surfaces of the glass needed to keep the southern sunlight from roasting the interior space resulted in a sadly blurry view through it. One would imagine it to be aging plastic from the time the Sears Tower opened rather than high-tech glazing.

The 30,000-square-foot rooftop garden is a pleasant enough open space along the south side of the tower, but its availability to the public is thwarted by an appalling lack of prominent signage to guide visitors. I easily found my way to the concession where you can buy Skydeck tickets two levels below the street, but had to ask a security guard how to get to the “public” roof.

While the guard pleasantly explained the rather convoluted navigation process, involving my location of less than well-marked elevators that must be called via an even less well-marked touchscreen in the wall, I can’t imagine every visitor will be booked a similar welcome.

As we hopefully await a new post-pandemic Chicago awakening, the Willis Tower reboot proves that this new era of city living will likely be marked by more overtly private spaces masquerading as public spaces. We must be more vigilant than ever to demand that cities be places where everyone can be welcomed and be together. Accepting anything less is simply unacceptable.

Edward Keegan is a Chicago-based architect and editor of Architect Magazine.


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