Gensler Enlivens the Street-Level of Chicago’s Willis Tower
At 1,451 feet, the Sears Tower was the tallest building in the world when it opened in Chicago in 1973. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it rises 110 stories over the Loop neighborhood and is a modernist icon, with a geometric structure and a facade of blackened aluminum and bronze-tinted glass. It’s also a landmark visible from across the city—so much so that locals still call it the Sears Tower, though it was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009. But it was always, as architecture critic Blair Kamin put it, “a dud at street level.” An austere plaza and a granite berm wrapping the base kept pedestrians at bay, and the public could only enter to visit Skydeck, the observation platform. In 2015, Blackstone bought the building and hired Gensler to rethink the site, which has resulted in a mixed-use attraction for office workers, tourists, and Chicagoans alike.
Todd Heiser, principal and managing director at Gensler’s Chicago studio, grew up in the city and found it surreal to take on the high-profile project. “It’s walking on hallowed ground,” he begins. “We approached it with humility, serving to amplify its positives and correct what was imperfect.” Willis Tower, he notes, was the product of an era of urban flight and single-use office buildings; it was designed to be impenetrable. But in the 21st century, aside from the early years of the COVID pandemic, cities have come roaring back to life and tenants seek dynamic, welcoming workplaces.
Designing an Amenities-Rich Hub in the Willis Tower
Gensler brought the supertall up to date with a 463,000-square-foot makeover, including new entrances, lounges, and a transparent six-story podium with a food hall and a rooftop park—elements that prove why the firm not only ranks number one among the Interior Design Top 100 Giants but also third amid the Hospitality Giants (as well as 14th on the Healthcare list).
Heiser and Hansoo Kim, principal and design director at Gensler’s Washington office, started by researching how people used and moved through the building. They met with families visiting the Skydeck, who were often also looking for a place to have lunch, and office workers hoping to get to their desks quickly. “We had to support demographics of all ages,” Heiser says, and consider “the person who wanted to linger and the person who wanted a friction-free environment.” Kim adds that to create a vibrant multipurpose destination, they had to connect different types of programming, like coworking and retail, and “blur the boundaries between work, life, and play,” he notes.
Gensler Creates an Expansive Communal Space for All Ages
The block-long building has entrances on three different streets (Wacker, Jackson, and Franklin). Originally, there were two for tenants and one for Skydeck visitors. Gensler opened them all to the public. “The entire base of the tower is now porous,” Heiser continues. Like a transportation hub or civic plaza, it hosts everyone from United Airlines employees who work in the building to toddlers and Midwestern retirees; the Skydeck alone draws 1.7 million visitors a year. Security is discreet. There are guards and cameras, but nothing like the airport-style measures we’ve come to expect in skyscrapers since 9/11. Touchless turnstiles use fingerprint scanners to admit employees into the tenant elevator bank at the building core.
Gensler, which partnered with SkB Architects on the facade, also reimagined the design of the entrances. At the Wacker Drive entry, earlier renovations had added a barrel-vaulted glass lobby and stainless-steel cladding on columns. The teams demolished the former and installed a portal of white-glazed terra-cotta, a common material in Loop architecture, and replaced the incongruous cladding with black-anodized aluminum that complements the original facade. (Gensler, which also tops our Sustainability Giants list, recycled more than 24,000 tons of demolition material.)
The existing entry sequence had its own issues: Visitors went downstairs to get to reception. “It was like walking into a bowl,” Heiser recalls. “You should be able to walk in and go up, because that’s logical.” A backlit staircase now leads to the main level, on the second floor. Here, Gensler leaned into the ’70’s glamour of the building’s heyday. An existing travertine wall was polished and unobstructed for the first time, and a lounge has been furnished with such late mid–century signatures as Cini Boeri’s furry Botolo chairs and chain-mesh drapery.
At the top of the stairs hangs a site-specific artwork: Jacob Hashimoto’s cloud of paper-and-resin discs. Its location in the Wacker lobby implicitly connects it to an Alexander Calder sculpture that originally hung there. “The client sought an installation as impactful as the Calder,” Heiser says. Gensler also commissioned an outdoor sculpture from Olafur Eliasson to mark the entrance to the new retail podium on Jackson Boulevard.
Gensler built the glass-walled podium on what had been an unwelcoming granite plaza, extending the base of the building to the sidewalk. The centerpiece of the addition is a soaring atrium and food hall called Catalog, a nod to the Sears mail-order business, that brings together local eateries beneath an enormous skylight. Diners can slide onto oak benches under bistro-style lights and look up at the tower. “Our goal was to create a Chicago streetscape inside the atrium, so you feel like you’re outside,” Kim explains. Above Catalog, a public roof garden with winding paths and native prairie grasses faces a neighboring park. Like the rest of the podium, it connects the building to the street and draws pedestrians into the once-forbidding landmark.
2023 Top 100 Giants Revealed
See which firms top the list.
Inside the Spacious Street-Level of the Willis Tower
- Avenue Road
- B&B Italia
- bloomsburg carpet
- boston valley terra cotta
- burlington stone; campolonghi
- cascade coil drapery
- clayco corp.; turner construction co.
- concrete collaborative
- established & sons
- estudio persona
- Garrett Rowland
- hanover architectural products
- novum structures
- Office Design
- parenti & raffaelli
- phantom hands
- pk-30 system
- Rebecca Dalzell
- rich brilliant willing
- skb architects
- stahl + band
- tegan lighting
- thornton tomasetti
- Top 100 Giants
- v3 companies
- workplace design
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