The Willis Tower has been an American architectural icon and a centerpiece of Chicago’s skyline since 1973. In 2015, a massive mixed-use redevelopment of the site began, seeking to redesign the tower “from street to sky”. In 2021, this transformation of the 110-story property was finalized, marking the completion of the largest restoration project in the building’s history. The Willis Tower may have been built in an era of single-use buildings and urban escape, but its next iteration is a modern mix of uses with active streetscapes – welcoming to all.
Establishing a human-centric approach, Gensler reflected on the impact and added value of the building on the daily routines of tenants and the community. The new base, which was once a red granite “fortress” transformed into a welcoming and transparent podium, includes a varied and expansive retail and dining experience, as well as urban green spaces rare in Chicago’s Loop. There was no shortage of challenges presented throughout the process, from mitigating the stack effect and underground structural constraints to interior security designations and preserving the tower’s iconic character. However, one of the biggest challenges faced was that all of the construction had to be done while keeping the tower open and operational for all 15,000 tenants while navigating an unpredictable global pandemic in the middle of the project.
While honoring the original glass and metal aesthetic of the tower, as well as its revolutionary “bundled tube” structural module, the podium offers a more textural and tactile design on a human scale. Terracotta, a nod to the rich history of its use in the Loop, has been incorporated at streetscape level to add visual interest and at main entrances to provide visual contrast. A hospitality-inspired open lobby blurs the lines between work and play, offering a lounge space to mingle and work together upon entry as well as impressive displays of public art.
Built on the principles of “style, structure, and soul,” the interior experience of Willis Tower celebrates the existing structure while introducing materials and details reminiscent of Chicago’s notable neighborhoods. Wherever the superstructure touches the ground, the dark aluminum cladding visually recalls the tower above. Upon entering on Wacker Drive, the user ascends a grand staircase between columns, an intentional design element evoking the entrance to a historic archaeological site. Catalog – 300,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor public space including new dining, entertainment and retail – is a nod to the classic catalog Sears Roebuck & Co., the tower’s original tenant, and is suited to the ever-changing nature of commercial spaces. There, offerings include full-service dining with Chicago’s emerging and widely recognized culinary talents, experiential art exhibits, and upscale convenience stores. Looking up, guests experience incredible views of the tower through an undulating 75’x85′ skylight.
Atop Catalog is a new, publicly accessible outdoor rooftop park spanning 30,000 square feet that is outfitted with a variety of seating options and lush landscaping inspired by the plains of Illinois. The restoration also introduces 150,000 square feet of exclusive tenant offerings, including event spaces, lounges, cafes and a fitness center on additional podium floors.
Along with the transformation, Willis Tower launched a vibrant arts initiative called Art of the Neighborhood for arts programming throughout the building. Two large-scale permanent installations, similar to other public art found in the Loop, have been installed: one by Jacob Hashimoto, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which hangs in the Wacker Hall, and the other by world-renowned artist Olafur Eliasson. , which is located on the facade of the Jackson Boulevard building. With this program, Willis Tower continues Chicago’s tradition of making world-class art accessible to the city as a whole.
The Willis Tower also sets a standard for supertall sustainability, earning LEED Platinum status by increasing efficiency and reducing waste.