Helmut Jahn was famous in Chicago and around the world for his prolific postmodern architecture particularly his work in steel and glass.
Born in Germany near Nuremberg, in 1940, Jahn graduated from Technische Hochschule in Munich and moved to Chicago in 1966. Jahn arrived in Chicago just as “downtown development” during the administration of Mayor Richard J. Daley (1902-1976) was finding its greatest momentum. Jahn began to study under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and, in 1967, joined Charles (C.F.) Murphy Associates which later became Murphy/Jahn. The younger man would carry on the powerful influence and energy of these Chicago personalities for building big, creatively, and prolifically for the next fifty years into the first quarter of the 21st century. Jahn would add his own significant contribution and footprint in Chicago and around the nation and world in those same long years of his activity.
One of Jahn’s early projects in his first years in Chicago was McCormick Place. The original concrete and steel permanent exposition hall on the lakefront that opened in 1960 was destroyed in a fire in January 1967, just as Jahn was starting to work as a professional architect. Named for Col. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper owner and publisher had boosted the idea of a permanent exposition hall on Chicago’s lakefront for years prior to his death in 1955.
Jahn had come to Chicago at an exciting time to be building there — during Jahn’s first years in Chicago the John Hancock Building was completed in 1969 and the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world for the next 24 years, was completed in 1974. In 1971, C.F. Murphy completed the new and massive McCormick Place, a powerful steel and glass structure with enormous cantilever eaves, on the same lakefront site as the old exposition hall. Out of that single successful building project, Helmut Jahn and the rest of the world saw the significant development in Chicago that would blossom around this important and functional modern architecture over ensuing decades — including the North building constructed across Lake Shore Drive in 1986; the South building built in 1996; a hotel built in 1998; the massive West building built in 2007; and, in 2017, the Wintrust Arena.
In the mid 1980’s one of Jahn’s most significant creations was the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago. Aesthetically grandiose and controversial, the “State of Illinois Building” was put up for sale in 2021 by the administration of Governor J.B. Pritzker, citing its historically high operating and maintenance costs.
Mixed reviews for Helmut Jahn’s massive semi-circular Thompson Center at 100 W. Randolph completed in 1985. The criticism begins at its entrance where Jahn saw placed “Outsider” French artist Jean Dubuffet’s fiberglass Monument with Standing Beast. During the building’s planning and construction some of the architect’s dazzling concepts met with resistance from contractors. For example, the contractors prevailed against Jahn’s idea for a completely locked-down outer skin by way of using silicone glazing. In the final construction the appearance of red, white, and blue locked-down skin belies the several places throughout the design where windows are made to be opened. Inside, though its soaring 17-story atrium is airy and impressive exposing floors that hold various state bureaucracy—and signaling the state government’s day-to-day practicality towards transparency — the practicality of the new building’s heating and cooling design proved seriously problematic during Chicago’s famous summer heat and winter cold though that major issue appeared to be eventually resolved. In 2021 Jahn’s mega-structure has been put up for sale by Gov. J.B. Pritzker citing that the building costs hundreds of millions of dollars to operate and maintain. The photograph was taken by the author on May 25, 2014.
In Chicago Jahn designed the exposed steel frame United Airlines Terminal 1 at O’Hare International Airport between 1985 and 1988. Air travelers for decades have enjoyably traversed its entertaining walkway connecting concourses that include moving sidewalks, colorful lighting and futuristic sounds.
One South Wacker Drive, 1982, Helmut Jahn. To the left is UBS Tower (1 N. Wacker) built in 2001 and to the right is Hyatt Center ( 71 S. Wacker) built in 2005. At 42 years old, Jahn spoke of his building at 1 S. Wacker as a synthesis of two major Chicago architectural styles—that of Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) and, Jahn’s mentor and fellow German, Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). The building is a concrete stepped-back 50-story building with a curtain wall of dark glass defining the vertical bands of windows. Its vision remains fresh and stunning as it sits majestically between two postmodern buildings built in Chicago a generation later. The photograph was taken by the author on May 25, 2014.
Jahn designed the 23-story addition to the Chicago Board of Trade in 1980 and Accenture Tower at 500 W. Madison in the West Loop which opened in 1987. Across the nation and world Helmut Jahn’s fresh, grand, and innovative designs have made their way into the annals of postmodern architecture. Any complete list of Helmut Jahn’s active and completed projects extends necessarily into the many scores. A list of notable buildings could include the 1999 K St. NW, a 12-story structure, in Washington D.C. completed in 2009; the twin 37-story Veers Towers in Las Vegas, Nevada opened in 2010; and, in his native Germany, the 63-story Messeturm in Frankfurt opened in 1990 and the Sony Center, a complex of eight buildings, in Potsdamer Platz in Berlin completed in 2000. The hard-driving list goes on…and on.
Jeanne and John Rowe Village at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), 2003, Helmut Jahn. Originally called the State Street Village Dormitories, Jahn’s postmodern structure that anchors the campus to the east, consists of three five-story buildings. Jahn’s design was the first major architectural addition to the IIT campus since the early 1960’s. U.S. News & World Report called it one of the “coolest dorms in the nation.” Stretching one city block along busy State Street from 33rd to 34th Streets, Rowe Village is next to the El tracks whose Green Line zips back and forth to Chicago’s Loop. Each dorm building consists of two wings that flank an interior courtyard. The building is finished at the rear on 34th street by an insulated five-story glass wall. Entry is through the courtyard which leads into a corridor that connects the two wings. It is built of reinforced concrete with the front elevations and roof dressed in custom corrugated stainless steel panels and tinted glass framed in aluminum. The building’s sleek curvature, three compartments and chained block-long length, reflects and evokes the image of a streamlined train making for a building as Art Moderne object in the Miesian tradition. From its rooftop the Rowe Village looks north for views of Chicago’s downtown skyline while the dorm offers suite-style living in a modern setting surrounded by the mind, serious and playful, of Helmut Jahn. The photograph was taken by the author on August 21, 2015.
At the time of his death at 81 years old on May 8, 2021 in a bike road accident in the far western suburbs of Chicago, Helmut Jahn was working on a 74-story residential building in Chicago at 1000 S. Michigan. It was scheduled to be opened in 2022 but its construction was already delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic that postponed construction. Helmut Jahn taught at IIT, the University of Illinois-Chicago, Harvard University, and Yale University. In 2012 Murphy/Jahn became JAHN and, according to a recent report from Dun & Bradstreet, the firm had a total of 55 employees and generated a little over $6 million in annual sales.
https://web.iit.edu/housing/jeanne-john-rowe-village – retrieved May 9, 2021.
AIA Guide To Chicago, 2nd edition, edited by Alice Sinkevitch, 2004, pp.73 and 91.
Illinois Institute of Technology: the campus guide: an architectural tour, Franz Schulze, 2005, pp.83-4.
Chicago’s Lakefront McCormick Place, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4Vs5VZprFE – retrieved May 9, 2021.
https://www.jahn-us.com/ – retrieved May 10, 2021.
http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/UA_Terminal-O_Hare.html– retrieved May 10, 2021.
https://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/lighting/1999-k-st-nw_o – retrieved May 10, 2021.