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Some of the world’s top architecture firms will compete for $8.7B O’Hare contract

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Names include Bjarke Ingels, Curtis Fentress, Santiago Calatrava, SOM, Jahn, Studio Gang, and Studio Fuksas

The concourse of O’Hare’s Terminal 3.

An $8.7 billion plan to expand and modernize Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport has caught the attention of some of the planet’s most active and buzzworthy architectural names.

Twelve groups have formally submitted qualifications to the city ahead of last Thursday’s deadline, according to a Chicago Tribune report citing information obtained from the city’s Department of Procurement Services. The lineup is full of heavy hitters including a healthy mix of hometown favorites, international giants, and foreign-based starchitects.

Among the local firms are Perkins+Will and Jahn—the latter known for its design of O’Hare’s two-concourse Terminal 1. They will face stiff competition from Chicago’s own Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who recently completed a pair of particularly beautiful projects in the form of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport’s Terminal 2 in Mumbai and Changi Airport Terminal 3 in Singapore.

SOM’s departure hall in Terminal 3 of the Changi Airport in Singapore.

Additionally, two large global architecture firms with offices in Chicago—Gensler and HOK—will join the list of companies vying for a chance to oversee the O’Hare overhaul. The Colorado-based firm of Curtis Fentress Architects, the designer of Denver’s iconic tent-roofed airport, also threw its hat in the ring.

Some bids are a joint venture comprised of multiple architects. For example, London-based Michigan Avenue Apple store designer Foster + Partners will team up with local firms JGMA and Epstein. Another joint bid will see Chicago-based Goettsch Partners collaborate with New York’s Rafael Vinoly Architects. Studio Gang will join forces with several firms such as STL Architects and Solomon Cordwell Buenz.

Interest from prominent overseas architects is equally strong, represented by Denmark’s Bjarke Ingels Group, Italy’s Studio Fuksas, and the Zurich-based offices of Santiago Calatrava. Arguably best known in Chicago for the abandoned 2,000-foot Chicago Spire skyscraper, Calatrava designed New York’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and a spiral-shaped sculpture slated for the base of Chicago’s River Point office tower.

Studio Fuksas designed the double-layer, honeycomb-like perforated skin of Bao’an International Airport in Shenzhen, China.

Known as O’Hare 21, the project represents O’Hare’s first major overhaul in 25 years. It calls for replacing Terminal 2 with a massive complex dubbed the O’Hare Global Terminal and Concourse to serve international and domestic flights from both United and American Airlines. Meanwhile, Terminals 1 and 3 will be renovated, Terminal 5 expanded, and two new satellite terminals constructed. Under the plan, the airport’s total terminal area is expected to grow from 5.5 million to 8.9 million square feet.

The city’s Department of Aviation will eventually whittle the designers down to a short list of about five firms. Ultimately, two architectural studios will be awarded contracts. The winner will be tasked with designing the larger global terminal while the second place “runner-up” will handle the design of the satellite terminals. Officials hope to complete the multiphase project by 2026.

O’Hare 21

Increasing the global competitiveness of O’Hare airport has been a top second term priority for outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who hopes to settle on a lead architect before he leaves office next spring.

In addition to O’Hare 21, the politician is pushing forward with a separate plan for Elon Musk’s The Boring Company to drill a high-speed underground link between the airport and the Loop’s Block 37. The project, which relies heavily on unproven experimental technology, faces lingering unanswered questions as well as doubts regarding its incredibly optimistic $1 billion budget and aggressive construction timeline.

Update: This post has been updated with new information to reflect the involvement of participating joint venture firms that we absent from earlier reporting.