Two years after work started on a massive project to wrap the base of Chicago’s iconic Willis Tower in a new retail and entertainment annex, the public is getting their first glimpse at the 300,000-square-foot space, known as Catalog.
The name is an homage to the building’s former namesake tenant, the Sears Roebuck Company, which disrupted retail with its famous mail-order catalog and built the 1,453-foot tower back in 1973. Its current owner, EQ Office, says the name also represents the addition’s mission to provide “a catalog of different experiences.”
Although work on the project is ongoing, it’s hard to miss the changes along Jackson Boulevard, where the five-story Catalog structure rises in the place of the blank stone wall that long dominated the southern third of the tower’s block-sized site.
“Before, it didn’t look like you were entering an entertainment complex,” says Kirsten Hull, of EQ Office. “It resembled a pink granite fortress. Our goal was to change the dynamic and make the tower part of the urban fabric.”
Catalog was conceived as a congregating place for people who lived and worked in the area as well as tourists headed to the 103rd-floor observation deck, according to Office EQ. Fifty percent of Skydeck visits take place after 5 p.m. or on the weekends, so creating a space that feels active even after office workers head home was important.
Designed by the Chicago office of global architecture firm Gensler, the Catalog is undoubtedly more inviting than the granite wall and sunken entrance it replaced along Jackson Boulevard. The highlight of the space is a curving glass skylight that allows visitors to peer up at the tower through a diagonal grid holding 240 panes of glass.
Brawny black vertical beams standing at the atrium’s northern end serve as a visual bridge to the skyscraper above. The metal columns don’t quite match the exterior of Willis Tower but are still reminiscent of the original Skidmore, Owings & Merrill design, says Jim Anderson of EQ Office.
Smaller details draw on existing elements of Chicago’s built environment. For example, railings are meant to evoke railroad ties while inlaid metal grids on stair landings resemble the gratings found on Chicago’s bridges, according to Hull.
A huge draw for many Chicagoans and out-of-towners will be the restaurant offerings such as Brown Bag Seafood Co. and Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken. Upcoming spots include Shake Shack, Sweet Green, Rick Bayless’ Tortazo, and a food hall from Urban Space.
The largest tenant, meeting and event space provider Convene, will occupy 90,000 square feet on Catalog’s third floor. Willis will be the company’s fourth Chicago location and will rent flexible meeting rooms to building tenants who wish to avoid building their own board rooms.
The unfinished Convene space wraps around the tower’s base and overlooks the building’s remodeled Wacker Drive lobby and a cloud-like art installation by Jacob Hashimoto. The revamped entrance returns to the original layout envisioned by Sears with visitors traveling upwards instead of down, explains Anderson.
The reconfiguration of the lobby has moved security and reception to a more efficient location, but wayfinding still remains a bit of an issue in the building—exacerbated by ongoing construction and closed-off corridors. The rest of Catalog, including publicly accessible rooftop green space, is expected to open by spring 2020.
Meanwhile, work continues elsewhere in Willis—including the single largest elevator modernization project in the history of the country. The building’s popular observation deck will likely receive a makeover of its own in the near future. Specific details have yet to be announced, but the project is rumored to include new thrill attractions like a chance to rappel down the tower’s side. How’s that for an expanded “catalog of experiences?”