Hettema’s sky-high vision for the Aon Center Observatory in Chicago
by Freddy Martin
ABOVE: The Aon Center in Chicago (tallest building in photo) enjoys a prominent location overlooking Millennium Park. Guests will soon be able to take in the view through an all new observation experience crafted by The Hettema Group. All images courtesy of The Hettema Group.
There will be a new view from the 82nd floor when Chicago’s third-tallest building – the 1,166-foot high Aon Center skyscraper in downtown’s East Loop – welcomes its first visitors to experience a new, 360-degree observation deck. When it opens in about 18 months, the Aon Center Observatory will have a lot to offer, including proximity to scenic Millennium Park and a skyline sweep that takes in Lake Michigan and iconic Chicago architecture. But it will go beyond view and location. Giving the view context and the visitors more to engage with will be 35,000 square feet devoted to a unique, educational and entertaining visitor experience – featuring multimedia show spaces, a sky-high thrill ride and the chance to fly (virtually) like a superhero through the city on a path of your choosing. The Hettema Group (THG), a top experiential design firm with two world-class observation attractions already in its portfolio, is designing and programming these spaces.
“Aon Center is literally at the center of the bullseye of life in the city of Chicago,” said Phil Hettema, President and Creative Executive, The Hettema Group (THG). “The location is amazing. No matter which direction you look, there’s a different personality right at your doorstep. So the challenge was to make something memorable out of that.”
THG’s celebrated success designing other observation experiences, such as One World Observatory in New York City (honored with a TEA Thea Award in 2016) and the High Roller, the world’s tallest observation wheel in Las Vegas, led the owners of the Aon Center to engage the firm.
The Aon Center is currently owned by The 601W Companies (601W), a private real estate investment firm, and managed by Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL). Solomon Cordwell Buenz (SCB), a Chicago-based architecture design and planning firm is design architect and architect of record, and Power Bear Construction Company and Power Construction Company are general contractor and construction manager. The observatory will be operated by Legends, which also operates One World Observatory in New York, The View from the Shard in London, and OUE Skyspace in Los Angeles.
The Aon Center Observatory is expected to attract two million visits annually. “Millennium Park is a massively popular destination for the city,” said Martin F. Wolf, FAIA, Design Principal at SCB. “Some estimates suggest that between 20 and 25 million of Chicago’s total 55 million visitors per year visit the park. With Aon Center, the idea is to heighten that sense of critical mass in our urban centers and reinforce over and over again that this is an exciting, dynamic place to be.”
Story in the skyline
For Phil Hettema and the THG design team, the motivation is to create an observatory experience compelling in nature but also differentiated from two other, well-known observatories in the downtown area: “Skydeck Chicago” in the Willis Tower and “360 Chicago” in the John Hancock Building. It is also a goal that the Aon Center Observatory distinguish itself among great observation experiences worldwide.
“The average dwell time at the Empire State Building is 20 minutes or so. It’s very quick,” said Hettema. “People go to the top to see the spectacular views, but then they turn around and leave. How do you increase dwell time and guest takeaways? It’s not really about making the view more interesting; it’s about contextualizing the view. And that’s the opportunity we have – to take those moments before the reveal and show them what this view really represents. It’s the people. It’s the energy. That’s the context that reveals the true story of the skyline.”
“We’re telling the story of Chicago through the personal experience of everyday people like those who come to visit the Aon Center,” said Jodi Roberdes, Director of Facility Design for THG. “We want to integrate our visitors into the story, to help them see themselves as vital elements in Chicago’s makeup. They should leave inspired to explore the city they have made.”
Accordingly, in developing the story that would set this observatory apart and guide the design and messaging, Hettema and his team chose to focus on the skyline as a symbol of Chicago’s residents and visitors, developing a quartet of signature attractions [see sidebar]. “There are plenty of perfunctory stories you can use to educate people about the buildings and identify them in the skyline,” said Hettema. “But we recognized that Chicago’s energy and spirit radiates from the people living, working, and playing within the skyline right there in front of your eyes.” The resulting visual narrative will follow the growth and development of Chicago’s skyline through the experiences of the people whose contributions have made it what it is.
Creative Space, Dynamic Place
The Aon Center building is a familiar tower set over the north end of Millennium Park. Originally The Standard Oil Building, it was completed in 1974 through a partnership with architecture firms Edward Durell Stone and Perkins & Will. When it opened, it was the tallest building in Chicago (today it is in third place) and the fourth tallest in the world.
As part of its commitment to the preservation and restoration of Chicago landmarks, and recognizing the architectural and cultural significance of the Aon Center, owners 601W sought to redefine the building’s place in the iconography of the city by inviting visitors up to its top floors. “Seeing the architecture of Chicago, not from the ground, but from the 82nd floor and looking closely at some of the greatest buildings in the world gives you a whole different perspective on this city,” said Matt Amato, General Manager of JLL. “I marvel at the view from up there because what you see is different every time you look – to see a storm blow in or to see a sunset or a sunrise is a really great experience. People are going to be in for a real treat.”
Sharing the remarkable view with Chicago residents and visitors became the vision for 601W’s planned property improvements. Serendipitously, the 82nd and 83rd floors of the building, which had once housed the site’s massive cooling systems (since updated), were now unused. This created the opportunity to reclaim and redeem more than 20,000 square feet of space to devote to the new attraction. “All of this unbelievable real estate at the top of the building was suddenly freed up,” said Hettema. “They had the vision to do something really compelling with a static space, which set in motion an ideation process and conceptual exploration for what that space could become.”
A project of this magnitude brings natural complexities. The historical and architectural interest of the building, the safety and security of a top-floor attraction, and the myriad concerns of a highly populated city all combine as interests that need to be addressed.
“Even in the best of circumstances, what experience designers do is always a little bit crazy,” said Hettema. “I mean it almost has to be audacious to be successful. And there’s always a hundred reasons why a project shouldn’t happen: nobody’s ever done that before; it’s too complicated; it causes traffic – all reasonable objections. But you have to listen and work through each one of those things, making sure that original vision stays strong enough through that. Not just for the sake of the vision, but that when all is done, everybody will win.”
In the city of Chicago, the process is to review such projects with the Alderman of the precinct, the Department of Transportation, fire officials, and the City Planning Commission. To allow input from neighbors and other stakeholders within the area, the development group also held a public hearing in May 2019 co-hosted by 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly. “The purists would like to see the skin of the building left alone without applying an external elevator,” Reilly told Sarah Schulte of ABC7 News before the hearings, “…others don’t have an issue, so we will have to work through the input and make choices.”
As noted above, a particular challenge arose concerning the location of the dedicated elevator that would propel visitors to the building’s top floors. Initial designs called for an external glass elevator to be anchored to the Southeast corner of the building, making it visible from anywhere in Millennium Park. Visitors would enter a ground-level entry pavilion, also facing the park, and board the elevators from there. “There was a concern that the elevator’s location would change the building’s facade and be too intrusive to the Chicago skyline,” said Jared Peter, Senior Producer for THG. “So we listened to that concern and reconsidered. The decision was made to move the elevator to the opposite corner, away from the park, where it would be less visible and preserve the skyline’s integrity.”
While the design relocated the elevator to the Northwest corner of the building, it retained the entry facing the park. With the elevator on the opposite corner of the entrance, guests would need to be re-routed beneath the building and traverse from one corner to the other. The unexpected benefit/challenge: more show space. THG embraced the situation. “The elevator change added an additional 20,000 square feet of show space downstairs,” said Roberdes. “We now needed to create new story beats and address the existing facility constraints Power and Bear surveyed to make it work.”
Experience, opportunity and humanity
The project is anticipated to secure the Aon Center’s financial health as well as its status as desirable real estate. According to a 2018 report published by the 601W Companies on aoncenterobservatory.com, it is expected that the city will realize a return of $218 million in tax revenue in the first few years of the attraction’s operation, while generating $900 million in direct economic impact over the following two decades.
The city of Chicago is no stranger to lofty attractions and audacious innovations. At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the first Ferris wheel lifted riders high into the sky and the “L” train began shuttling commuters on elevated, electric rails. At Chicago’s 1933-34 Century of Progress expo, giant aluminum gondolas carried passengers from one side of the fairgrounds to the other. The developers see the Aon Center Observatory in the same tradition.
The Aon Center Observatory is part of an emergent trend in observation deck experiences in operation or being constructed in tower developments around the world today. For cities and developers, it activates a static space with dynamic attractions that generate revenue and tourism and (literally) a refreshing new perspective on the metropolis. For the attractions industry, the trend represents professional opportunity.
“What is it about an elevated view that becomes so seductive to all of us?” asked Hettema. “Certainly, having the upper position gives you a lot of advantages of both being able to see a distance and defend yourself. But I also think it is innately human to want to understand ourselves as part of the larger cultural picture. And when you can see that kind of vista, it allows you to imagine yourself as part of it in a way you can’t do other places. That’s why we are striving to make this experience more resonant for people as they come to see the view.” • • •
Freddy Martin (email@example.com) is a writer, storyteller, and independent consultant. He began his theme park voyage as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. Freddy co-hosts the Themed Attraction Podcast and is a regular contributor to InPark as well as ThemedAttraction.com. He also blogs at FreddyMartin.net.
The Aon Center Observatory guest experience
Plaza Pavilion and preshow
From the street level, visitors are drawn into the Plaza Pavilion beneath a sleek, wedge-shaped roofline that recalls the Aon Center’s stone columns. They are guided down escalators to the lower levels of the building where the preshow begins. A floor-to-ceiling multimedia gallery lines the walls at varying distances from the viewer, creating corridors of interactive light. Content captured and generated in real time will combine video and photo images of the guests along with historic and modern footage to help them imagine themselves as characters within the story of Chicago.
Guests will journey to the top in an exterior glass elevator anchored to the Northwest corner of the building. The lift will speed guests 82 stories skyward in about a minute, which is expected to establish it as North America’s fastest and tallest glass elevator. The elevator’s position presents unique views of the Northwest areas of downtown including the Magnificent Mile and River North. The ride and the view will be complemented by some special moments being designed into the experience by THG. “As visitors glide to the top of the tower, we believe this will open their eyes to a whole new perspective,” said Amato.
When they reach the 82nd floor, guests will enter the West Gallery, where they will experience a grand reveal of the panoramic views. The space will open upon a vast gallery of two-story-high windows looking out onto the Chicago skyline. Design motifs on the ceiling will refer to rivers and wind. Tiered walkways will invite guests to move freely through the space and find their own perfect view. Some of the architectural elements are being redesigned to help maximize the viewing area. Interior columns will be clad in floor-to-ceiling, video touchscreens that help visitors identify and learn about sites visible from the deck.
“It’s amazing how beautifully the space has worked to our advantage,” said Hettema. “These are big-volume spaces with a clear span, so we were able to maximize the sensation of wide-open space expanding in all directions.”
The West Gallery will also include interactive, multimedia experiences meant to engage visitors as vital participants in the story of Chicago. Along the interior walls, a 140-foot long, digital mural will have interactive qualities and reinforce the sense of place and one’s presence within the city of Chicago.
The attraction liable to garner the most attention will be the one-of-a-kind, top-floor thrill ride dubbed “Sky Summit.” The original ride system, designed by THG, is an enclosed glass tube that will be lifted up and over the edge of the building, suspending 22 passengers high above Millennium Park. Using smart glass technology, the bottom of the vehicle will appear opaque when passengers climb aboard. When it reaches its position suspended over the parapet, the glass will become crystal clear, giving riders a thrilling view of the city far below.
“The distinguishing factor of the Aon Center Observatory will be the thrill ride, Sky Summit,” said Peter. “There are other observation decks in the city that offer interesting, top-floor perspectives, but we believe this one will be far more thrilling and enticing for visitors.” When operating, the ride will be visible from anywhere in Millennium Park, creating a kinetic marquee for drawing residents and tourists alike. “We are creating an elegant experience,” said Peter. “The ride is designed to carry visitors smoothly and silently over the city in a way that is as transformative as it is exciting.”
Ultra-Flight is a simulation experience that will allow visitors to pilot themselves among the skyscrapers and iconic sites of downtown Chicago. They will virtually fly right off the top of the Aon Center and have the power to fly through the city at their own speed and flight path wherever they want to go. “You can fly right down Michigan Avenue or over to Wrigley Field,” said Hettema. “You can control wherever you want to go in the city. It’s up to you. And the cool thing about it is that the simulator will match the time of day and weather conditions of the day you’re visiting. Depending on the time of year, you might even get to encounter some ‘easter eggs’ (surprises) as you soar.”
On the second level of the observatory, the 83rd floor, will be a restaurant and cocktail lounge, along with a special events space.•