A look back at the Harold Washington Library competition | WBEZ
Skip to main content

WBEZ Blogs

From 1989: PBS documentary on Harold Washington Library competition

For several months in 1988, the competition to design the Harold Washington Library was the talk of the city.

The new downtown library not just a place for books, but an architectural gut check: Would America's first city of architecture pick a daring design? Or would Chicago—in the wake of the cost overruns at the then-new State of Illinois Building and the McCormick Place west addition (or out of sheer timidity)— select the safe and familiar?

In 1989, PBS' Nova series took a look at the competition in an episode called "Design Wars," seen in an edited version in the video above. The program explored the five teams each headed by architects Dirk Lohan, Thomas Beeby, SOM, Helmut Jahn and Arthur Erickson of Canada that sought the commission. Each architect was paired with a real estate developer to assure the design could be built for $140 million price tag.

Each submittal was profoundly different. Beeby's design won, of course, and the building was completed in 1991.

Watching "Design Wars" a quarter century later, there is much to note. The camera pan at the beginning of the video reveals a skyline east of Michigan Avenue that looks remarkably barren now. At 0:16, architecture historian Bob Bruegmann in a stroll along the riverwalk that once ran next to the old Chicago Sun-Times Building at 401 N. Wabash Ave. nicely explains why architecture is so important here. SOM's computer modeling at 2:00 is also worth a look. So is the scene with architects damning each other's designs with the faintest of praise at 3:38.

Broadcaster and civic leader Norman Ross chaired the design jury. His critique of each design at 7:27 is both erudite and devastating—as is architect Stanley Tigerman's assessment of Beeby's design at the end.

What do you think of the design—then and now? Back then, I rooted for Erickson's design. Looking at it now, I'm far less impressed. In "Design Wars," Ross said a juror thought the building resembled "a Houston or Marin County shopping center." It does. Take a look at the video and leave your comments below.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.