Willis Tower Chicago street-level renovation architecture 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 an excellent addition to our Loop public sculpture.

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

The dark gray steel, punctuated with similarly dark mottled gray brick of the new exterior extends throughout the interior, although the brick often seems as if it’s been applied as an upscale wallpaper.

The undulating skylight above the main food hall off the Jackson Street entrance has a lot of work to do: It’s providing natural light to quite a few levels, three at or above grade and two below.

On a recent sunny day, the light quality was decent, but the sophisticated fritted surfaces of the glass necessary to deflect the southern sunlight from roasting the interior space gave an unfortunately hazy view through it. One could imagine that it is aging plastic from the days of Sears Tower’s opening rather than high-tech glazing.

The 30,000-square-foot roof 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 to it. I easily found my way to the concession where you can buy tickets to the Skydeck two levels below the street, but it was necessary to ask a security guard how to access the “public” roof.

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

As we look hopefully for a new awakening of post-pandemic Chicago, the Willis Tower reboot proves that this new era of urban life is likely to be marked by more overtly private spaces masquerading as public space. We need to be more vigilant than ever in requiring that cities are places where all can be welcome and be together. To accept anything less is simply unacceptable.

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