Since its completion in 1973, the Willis Tower has served as a landmark of American architecture and the Chicago skyline. A significant mixed-use makeover of the location started in 2015 with the goal of reimagining the tower “from street to sky.” The 110-story building’s renovation was finished in 2021, capping off the largest restoration project in the structure’s history. Although the original Willis Tower was constructed in a time of single-use structures and urban flight, the current version features a contemporary mix of uses and a bustling cityscape that is open to all.
Gensler adopted a human-centric strategy and took into account how the building will affect and enhance the daily activities of both the tenants and the community. Previously a “fortress” of red granite, the new base has been transformed into a warm and translucent podium with a wide range of shops and restaurants, as well as a unique urban greenspace in Chicago’s Loop. Stack effect mitigation, subsurface structural limitations, homeland security designations, and maintaining the distinctive nature of the tower were just a few of the difficulties that came up along the project. The fact that the entire construction process had to be carried out while keeping the tower open and functional for the 15,000 tenants—all while managing an unexpected global pandemic in the middle of the project—was one of the toughest hurdles encountered.
The podium offers a more textural and tactile design at a human scale while preserving the Tower’s original glass and metal appeal and its ground-breaking “bundled tube” structural element. Terracotta was used to give visual appeal to the cityscape and to create visual contrast at the main entrances as a nod to the long history of its use in the Loop. An open lobby with a hospitality theme blurs the barriers between work and play by providing a lounge area for networking and co-working upon entering along with breathtaking examples of public art.
The interior of the Willis Tower honors the existing structure while also introducing materials and elements reminiscent of well-known Chicago neighborhoods. It was constructed according to the concepts of “Style, Structure, and Soul.” Wherever the superstructure contacts the ground, the tower above is optically echoed by the dark aluminum coating. The user ascends a large staircase between columns at the entrance on Wacker Drive, a deliberate architectural choice meant to evoke the entrance to a famous ancient site. A homage to the iconic Sears Roebuck & Co. Catalog, the tower’s original tenant, Catalog—300,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor public space including new restaurants, entertainment, and retail—is aware of how commercial spaces change over time. Offerings there include full-service restaurants with both up-and-coming and well-known Chicago chefs, interactive art displays, and upscale convenience shopping. Through a wavy 75’x85′ skylight, tourists can see the tower in stunning detail from above.
A 30,000 square foot, open-to-the-public outdoor roof park featuring a number of seating options and lush flora modeled by the Illinois plains. On extra floors of the podium, the renovation adds 150,000 square feet of tenant-only amenities, such as event rooms, lounges, cafes, and a fitness facility.
A dynamic arts effort dubbed Art of the Neighborhood for the art activities throughout the building was established by Willis Tower concurrently with the makeover. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduate Jacob Hashimoto’s piece, which hangs in the Wacker Lobby, and world-famous artist Olafur Eliasson’s, which is located on the building’s Jackson Boulevard facade, are two large-scale permanent installations that are similar to other pieces of public art found throughout the Loop. Willis Tower carries on Chicago’s heritage of opening up top-notch art to the entire community through this initiative. Willis Tower also establishes a benchmark for supertall sustainability, earning LEED Platinum certification by boosting productivity and cutting waste.