Helmut Jahn (1940–2021)

John Hill
10. May 2021
Helmut Jahn (Photo: Ingrid von Kruse, via German-Architects)

German architect Helmut Jahn died on Saturday, May 8, when he was struck by two cars while riding his bicycle in Campton Hills, a far western suburb of Chicago. The 81-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident.

Even before reports of this weekend's tragedy, Helmut Jahn was making headlines: his most famous creation, the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago's Loop, was just put up for sale by the State of Illinois. Controversial even before it opened in 1985, the 17-story building with government offices open to a full-height atrium — an architectural expression of an "open government" — is expected to be demolished after a buyer is found to develop the prime location. Jahn's death could aid preservationists in their attempt to save one of the most unique buildings in Chicago — an icon of postmodern architecture anywhere — but who knows if it's enough to counter the rampant development now underway in Chicago. Jahn's eponymous office created renderings a few years ago reimagining the saucer-like building as the base of a new tower, a creative means of adaptively reusing the building and a hint that developers need not demolish it entirely.

Jahn was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1940. After graduating from Munich's Technische Hochschule in 1965 and briefly working with P. C. von Seidlein, Jahn left for Chicago in 1967 for graduate studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, studying under Myron Goldsmith and Fazlur Khan. After seven years working for architect Gene Summers, a disciple of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Jahn joined the office of Charles F. Murphy, eventually become president of the newly named Murphy/Jahn in the early 1980s. (Murphy died in 1985, but Jahn did not rename the firm to JAHN until 2012.) Jahn started that decade with the completion of the Xerox Center, a mirror-glass high-rise in the Loop; a prominent rounded corner rising the full height of the tower echoed Louis Sullivan's nearby Schlesinger & Mayer Department Store (now Sullivan Center). Other contextual nods came with a 1982 addition to the Board of Trade, an Art Deco landmark, and the high-rise Northwestern Atrium Center (now Citigroup Center), with its stepping also clearly inspired by Art Deco architecture.

Jahn's 2018 proposal reimagining the Thompson Center as part of a new development. (Image: visualizedconcepts)

The most celebrated building completed by Jahn in Chicago in this era was the United Airlines Terminal at O'Hare International Airport; the glassy "cathedral of transport" influenced much aviation architecture that followed, some of them to his own designs. Ironically, following the terminal's completion in 1987, new commissions in his adopted hometown dried up, often attributed to the backlash and bad press from the technical flaws immediately apparent in the Thompson Center's overheating atrium; the Chicago Tribune's story on Jahn's death sums it up well: "Jahn once said the building made his reputation around the world and killed it in Chicago." Whatever the reasons, projects in other parts of the United States and in Europe were in abundance in the 1990s and early 2000s. Of particular note is the Sony Center completed in 2000 in Berlin, where the firm also has an office; it is one of many Jahn projects engineered by Werner Sobek. Their ongoing collaborations yielded numerous gems, most recently the sculptural ThyssenKrupp Test Tower in Rottweil, Germany.

ThyssenKrupp Test Tower by Helmut Jahn with Werner Sobek. (Photo: Rainer Viertlböck)

Jahn "returned" to Chicago this century with student housing at his alma mater, IIT, a supportive housing project on the city's North Side, a residential tower in Streeterville, and a trio of buildings on the campus of the University of Chicago. At the time of his death his firm was in the midst of completing 1000 South Michigan, an 832-foot-tall residential tower on the edge of Grant Park. Initially expected to be complete in 2022, it would be his most substantial mark on the city since the Thompson Center three decades earlier, though currently it is on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Jahn is survived by his wife, Deborah Jahn, whom he married in 1970, and their son, Evan, who was born in 1978. Together, Helmut and Deborah owned Seven Oaks Farm, a stable in St. Charles, located about 40 miles west of Chicago, not far from the intersection where Helmut Jahn was killed.

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