Willis Tower Repositioning
Architect: Gensler, SkB Architects, OLIN
Owner: Blackstone/EQ Office
When it rose on Chicago’s skyline in 1973, the Willis Tower became an instant American architectural icon. This project, conceived as a “street to sky” re-envisioning, is the biggest restoration project in the building’s history and shapes an optimistic new chapter for its future. Though constructed in an era of single-use buildings and urban flight, a modern mix of uses with active streetscapes that engage tourists, residents, and workers support Willis Tower’s evolution.
The client purchased Willis Tower in 2015 to uncover its hidden value and program its underused spaces. That vision includes new amenities, a complete refresh of both transfer levels, an overhaul of its wildly popular Skydeck experience, and a new public podium. The team faced no shortage of difficulties, chief among them keeping the building open for 15,000 tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic. Underground structural constraints, Department of Homeland Security designations, and an overarching need to preserve the Tower’s character all added to the challenge.
The project hinges on the more than 400,000-square-foot commercial podium and hospitality-inspired open lobby, which erase the lines between work and leisure and greatly enhance the experience for all users. Better known as Catalog, the podium hosts new dining, entertainment, and retail outlets and stands as an homage to the classic Sears Catalog, a celebrated publication of the building’s original tenant. Looking up, sweeping views of Willis Tower greet visitors through a massive undulating skylight. A 30,000-square-foot public park on the podium’s roof, inspired by agricultural landscapes of Illinois, has also emerged as one of Chicago’s next great public plazas.
Adhering to the principles of style, structure, and soul, the Tower’s interior celebrates its history while introducing materials and details that evoke Chicago’s notable neighborhoods. Where the superstructure touches the ground, dark aluminum cladding references the tower above, amplifying an architectural icon without competition. The team used terracotta, a nod to the material’s abundance throughout the city’s Loop, at the street and main entries to provide visual contrast and interest.
The Tower’s transformation has been accelerated further through a dynamic arts initiative called Art of the Neighborhood. Two new large-scale permanent installations add to the city’s impressive public art collection. An installation of more than 7,000 kite-like discs by Jacob Hashimoto dangles above guests in the lobby. At the same time, Olafur Eliasson’s “Atmospheric Wave Wall,” which draws inspiration from Chicago’s bodies of water, activates the street from its place on the facade.
Since its unveiling in 2021, the project has proven to be a potent catalyst for activity and value in the neighborhood. By providing a forward-looking workplace with vibrant public amenities, the Tower has drawn new visitors and encourages them to explore and linger longer. It continues to defy expectations, boasting better post-pandemic lease rates than much of the downtown Chicago office market.