The great city rethink — designers advocate to make city space more inviting

At 1,450 feet tall and 110 stories high, Chicago’s Willis Tower is one of the world’s tallest buildings and a symbol of engineering excellence. But as decades passed, the building began to feel exclusive, and not in a good way, says Benjy Ward, Design Principal and Global Creative Director at architecture and design firm Gensler.

“The Willis Tower was originally built on a podium that became a fortress that kept the rest of the city out,” says Ward.

Constructed in the 1970s when large parts of the population were leaving cities for the suburbs, the Willis Tower was designed to house office workers and deter anyone else from entering the building. Ward says fear of rising crime rates in the ‘70s, as well as unwanted foot traffic, led the tower to be designed to wall itself off from the surrounding neighborhood.

“The base of the building was made from big granite walls that kept people out,” Ward says. “Nobody ever felt welcome going into the building unless there was a purpose for being there.”

Ward, who is also the design principal in charge of the recent repositioning of the iconic building, says the redesign changes that.

“The whole idea is for it to be as inclusive as possible to drive as much foot traffic as possible.”

– Benjy Ward

The project is named “Catalog,” an homage to the building’s original tenant, the Sears Roebuck Company. 

Building owner Blackstone invested $500 million to transform the 47-year-old skyscraper to add more than 300,000 square feet of new retail, dining, and entertainment space at the base of the tower; 150,000 square feet of new tenant amenity spaces; and a 30,000 square-foot outdoor deck and garden.

The reimagined base of the building will “dissolve the borders between work and life,” according to Gensler, and “foster a collaborative, warm atmosphere.”

It’s one of a handful of projects Ward and the team at Gensler Chicago have been working on — including the transformation of Chicago’s long-vacant 2.8 million square foot Post Office building into a hub for business and commerce — to help revive Chicago’s city core for modern times.

“We’re taking these huge iconic buildings and completely rethinking how they work for a more contemporary lifestyle … and transforming them to be more flexible in the future,” he says.

The urgent need to make cities more inviting and inclusive

The Willis Tower and Post Office projects are examples of how cities — and the companies that help them thrive — are working to be more inviting.

It’s a much bigger challenge in the hybrid workplace era where millions of downtown office workers across the country will opt to continue working from home, which could reshape the defining characteristics of a vibrant city core.

While 2020 was about leaving the office and urban centers, 2022 is expected to bring people back to those places and spaces. At least that’s the hope. Designers and architects will be called on to help rethink how space is built to make it a new, more inclusive experience in every sense of the word.

“The pandemic has accelerated everyone’s urgency around space, around the environment, as well as culture and inclusion. It makes a lot more sense for buildings to be more inclusive.”

– Benjy Ward

Ward believes cities are more inclusive today and that infrastructure and architecture firms that build space need to reflect that. Inclusive design must start with the realization that you need the right people in the room.

“Architecture has historically been a very white profession. We’re working hard to change that,” says Ward. “We won’t have truly inclusive architecture as a society until those in this profession are more representative of the population of people who are out there experiencing these buildings.”

How to create sustainable metropolitan spaces

The post-pandemic revitalization of cities will require designers and architects to create places and spaces where people want to come — even if they no longer need to.

It will start with the reinvention of the workplace. “We’re at a weird crossroads, where we have to figure out the office,” Ward says. He envisions the workplace will become more like a showroom or a “brand beacon” for employees to connect with each other and their clients.

“You might have 40% of your staff working in an office, and maybe offices get smaller, but they can have more space for client meetings, larger events, venues for things that are more public, and things that you can’t do at home,” Ward says. “You can really push the idea of brand, which is something I don’t think you can do online because everything done online is branded Zoom. Physical space can be branded in a way that reminds people [where they work], and creates an affiliation with the company.”

When strategically designed, workplaces will highlight modifications brought on by the hybrid era and act as an experience rather than a space to do work. Buildings will also house a wider range of businesses and activities, from work to events to entertainment.

“The idea of creating spaces that include amenities that are outdoors, and allowing people to work anywhere, are things we’ve been talking about for years. But now, people are really paying attention.”

– Benjy Ward

Workplaces will remain hubs of idea exchanges, and by creating space that is less structured to enable creativity, many believe the workplace can become a destination rather than an obligation. 

Cities will need to follow suit, offering a compelling range of attractions for workers in their off-hours, as well as tourists — everything from arts and culture to retail, parks, and other public spaces. 

“Just as offices need amenities to get workers out of pajamas to drive or take the train downtown to hang out with co-workers, cities will need to build parks and other spaces filled with great art and lots of people,” Ward says.

As Mary Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco says, that would create “work-life integration” rather than “balance.”

No matter how the post-pandemic era reshapes our cities, Ward believes they will survive and be sustainable if the right choices are made today. 

“I don’t think cities are going away,” Ward says. “they’re just going to have to transform to get the density that they need to be effective.”

The challenge for designers, architects, and other decision-makers is to reimagine the city of the future that can adapt no matter what global disruption is thrown at it next.

Benjy Ward, Design Principal and Global Creative Director at Gensler, is one of six design Iconoclasts DIRTT interviewed on why adaptable design matters.
Benjy Ward, Design Principal and Global Creative Director at Gensler, is one of six design Iconoclasts DIRTT interviewed on why adaptable design matters.

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