Helmut Jahn (1940-2021): “We’ve got to go forward!”

Vladimir Belogolovsky writes on Jahn’s career and shares his thoughts on the role of engineering and the importance of risk-taking from 2018 interview with the late architect.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : May 17, 2021

Helmut Jahn, a German-American architect, who was responsible for some of the most iconic buildings in Chicago, his home for 55 years, and in cities across the globe, was killed last Saturday, May 8, when two vehicles struck his bicycle near his home in Campton Hills, a far western suburb of Chicago. Jahn was 81. The charismatic architect, christened by Newsweek “the Flash Gordon of Architecture,” was responsible for more distinguished buildings than any other contemporary master in Chicago – from Xerox Center (1980), Chicago Board of Trade Addition (1983), and United Airlines Terminal (1988) and CTA Station (1984), both at O’Hare International Airport, to Citigroup Center (1987), IIT State Street Village (2003), two buildings at University of Chicago South Campus – Chiller Plant (2010) and Joe and Rika Mansueto Library (2011), and many more. Yet, the architect’s most memorable and easily most controversial project in the city is James R. Thompson Center, named so in honour of four-term Illinois Republican Governor, (1977-91) who was brave enough to get it built in 1985. On May 3, just five days before Jahn’s death, following years of negotiations, the state of Illinois, facing hundreds of millions of dollars in the building’s repair, began soliciting bids for its sale. The structure, barely 35-years-old, unique example of late 20th century American architecture, is now being threatened by demolition. The decision was announced by Governor JB Pritzker, the nephew of Jay Pritzker (1922-99), who in 1979 founded Chicago-based Pritzker Prize, the highest honour in the field of architecture.

  • University of Chicago Boiler Plant, Chicago (2010) | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Helmut Jahn | STIR Tributes | STIRworld
    University of Chicago Boiler Plant, Chicago (2010) Image: Courtesy of JAHN
  • IIT State Street Village, Chicago(2003) | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Helmut Jahn | STIR Tribute | STIRworld
    IIT State Street Village, Chicago (2003) Image: Courtesy of JAHN

Home to offices of the Illinois state government, the dazzling glass and steel structure of Thompson Center reinvented the government building typology. Nicknamed a starship for its futuristic shape, it is the closest structure to the true high-tech style ever built in America, an ecstatic spectacle of space, transparency, light, and colour that occupies the entire city block in Chicago’s central Loop area. Walking around it on three sides will not reveal anything remarkable but come to the intersection of W Randolph and N Clark streets, the southeast corner, and you will be knocked your feet off by sweeping three tiers of conically curved and angled setbacks. This surprising move generously freed up pricey urban land for triangular public plaza. There are trees, benches, childlike colossal sculpture Monument with Standing Beast (fiberglass, 1984) by Jean Dubuffet, and multiple options for shortcuts and rare vantage points in the heart of the dense metropolis. The 17-storey, 1.2 million-square-foot structure with the breathtaking full-height, 160-foot-diameter rotunda, was designed to celebrate centrality and transparency of government. It could now be replaced with a tower of more than two million square feet — enough to reach over 100 stories. Nothing seems to be able to stop the developers from building bigger, taller, and more money-making structure in this next from the City Hall prime location. Foreseeing this, the original architect suggested in his speculative 2015 proposal – giving the building a new life through adaptive reuse  and envisioning a new 110-storey tower to anchor the southwest corner.

Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, Chicago (2011) | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Helmut Jahn | STIR Tribute | STIRworld
Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, Chicago (2011) Image: Courtesy of JAHN

Born in a small town called Zirndorf, near Nuremberg in Bavaria, Germany in 1940, Helmut Jahn graduated from Technical University of Munich in 1965 and emigrated to the United States the following year. He was particularly keen on settling in Chicago where he believed architectural breakthroughs were still possible. Once in Chicago, he attempted to pursue his graduate studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, but the program proved to be too stringent for his temperament. In 1967, he left IIT in protest and joined CF Murphy Associates. By 1973, Jahn assumed the role of the firm’s Executive Vice President and Director of Planning and Design. He took control of the company in 1981. By then it became Murphy/Jahn. In 2012, it was renamed into simply JAHN.

O’Hare CTA Station, Chicago (1986) | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Helmut Jahn | STIR Tribute | STIRworld
O’Hare CTA Station, Chicago (1986) Image: Courtesy of JAHN

Jahn came to Chicago at a time when Mies’ reputation was as solid as his steel buildings. But his universal language and almost religious widespread following started attracting questions already a few years after his death in 1969. In the mid-1970s Jahn joined the young rebellious architects of the Chicago Seven group. His projects stood out for their reflection of technology and history, particularly Manhattan Art Deco skyscrapers. His distinctive towers in Chicago, as well as in Manhattan, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Frankfurt, Munich, Bonn, Bremen, Brussels, Warsaw, Riga, Singapore, Tokyo, Guangzhou, and Johannesburg constitute an extraordinary collection of high-rises that metamorphosized dramatically from being overly expressive, even flamboyantly jazzy objects in the 1980s to more recent designs – highly abstracted and finely chiseled structures. The following is a condensed version of my interview with the architect that was conducted at Jahn’s Chicago office on August 17, 2018.

Xerox Center, Chicago (1980) | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Helmut Jahn | STIR Tribute | STIRworld
Xerox Center, Chicago (1980) Image: Courtesy of JAHN

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Some critics call you a “romantic Modernist” and refer to your architecture as “romantic high-tech’. You said the following: “We do not construct decoration, we decorate construction”. How would you define the intention of your architecture?

Helmut Jahn (HJ): Well, these ideas go back to the times right after Mies, shortly after I just started working at CF Murphy Associates, the predecessor of Murphy/Jahn, and designing my first independent buildings from mid-1970s. Then everyone was still working within Miesean dogmatic “less is more” mode. So, when my early buildings started expressing structure and colour, they immediately attracted attention. Then in 1980, the Xerox Center here in Chicago, the one that curves around a corner, was built. It became a real breakthrough. That led to a whole series of distinctive buildings, particularly towers in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Singapore, and the most iconic became 63-storey MesseTurm in Frankfurt. But that was just one period that led to the next one, which started in the mid-1990s.

MesseTurm, Frankfurt, Germany (1991) | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Helmut Jahn | STIR Tribute | STIRworld
MesseTurm, Frankfurt, Germany (1991) Image: Courtesy of JAHN

VB: What caused that shift and how did your work evolve after that?

HJ: I met Werner Sobek, a brilliant German architect and structural engineer. After I met him, my buildings became known for what we called Archineering, a collaboration between an architect and engineer at an early stage of design. It was not so much about the aesthetics but about performance and how buildings are constructed and the use of the materials. I met Sobek in 1994; our first collaboration was on the design of the Bangkok Airport’s roof. SONY Center in Berlin followed. Sobek was the first person to tell me, “Helmut, you cannot do this”. Now he often tells me, “You don’t need me. You know your structures”. We work very closely, and we exchange our roles all the time – the architect thinks like a structural engineer and the engineer thinks like an architect. That collaboration produced new kind of buildings. The Post Tower built in Bonn in 2003 was the marker, after which the work became more restrained and refined. Architects need to push for innovation, but today it is so much harder to be inventive because there are so many ways of doing things that are already established. And most clients are afraid to run into a risk of making a mistake. That’s the biggest handicap in terms of making progress. 

Post Tower, Bonn, Germany (2003) | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Helmut Jahn | STIR Tribute | STIRworld
Post Tower, Bonn, Germany (2003) Image: Courtesy of JAHN

VB: Back in mid-1980s you said, “Today we don’t have any accepted principles. All the rules, all the styles, are either dead or under observation as to whether they’ll survive. For me, it’s exciting and exhilarating. It’s a kind of freedom we have to enjoy”. You don’t seem to agree with this statement today. Do you still feel that all styles are dead and that there is freedom for going forward?

HJ: Unfortunately, we no longer have this freedom of possibilities and it is not the right climate when you can sell this attitude. Today, clients are big corporations, big banks, and big developers. They all want to be safe. They are skeptical about individuals who have an attitude toward architecture. But doing what is easy will never produce architecture that is new and progressive.

United Terminal 1, Chicago (1986) | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Helmut Jahn | STIR Tribute | STIRworld
United Terminal 1, Chicago (1986) Image: Courtesy of JAHN

VB: Yet, there are still a number of quixotic individuals who fight against all odds.

HJ: Sure, I am fighting, and we still get jobs. But it is much more difficult. And I don’t build as much anymore. We now have just a third of architects compared to before.

Atrium of James R Thompson Center, Chicago (1985) | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Helmut Jahn | STIR Tribute | STIRworld
Atrium of James R Thompson Center, Chicago (1985) Image: Courtesy of JAHN

VB: Could you comment on your Thompson Center? Now, that its future is uncertain, how do you see its place in Chicago’s history?

HJ: The Thompson Center was a government building turned into a public place. When it opened in 1985, it made history because it became a new public place for the city. It was a new way to integrate private space with the public space. Of course, it was never a well-managed public place for political reasons. It is not even open on weekends and there are so many restrictions where people can and can’t go. Still, in the future I can imagine it to be used by a private company such as Google. The original idea was to open the building from every side. I started with a solid block. But I felt that the building must have a public plaza, so one day I cut the corner off on an angle and curved it to represent the traditional dome of government buildings. When we enclosed the atrium, I felt that building lost something. That’s why 15 years later while designing the SONY Center in Berlin the atrium there became the open courtyard. I remember when the chairman of SONY viewed the model and said, “Mr. Jahn, where are the doors?” I said, “There are no doors”. And he said, “but then everybody can come in”. So, I said, “You got it!” [laughs]. That’s what we tried to do, and he never said anything else.

Sony Center, Berlin(2000) | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Helmut Jahn| STIR Tribute | STIRworld
Sony Center, Berlin (2000) Image: Courtesy of JAHN

VB: It was the Thompson Center that pushed the SONY Center, right?

HJ: Absolutely! SONY is the new kind of urban space for new society and new preferences. But you can also look at history and learn from there as well. Look at public piazza in Sienna; that is an inspiration for SONY. One project pushes the next. Then we designed a mixed-use complex with a shopping center, hotels, apartments, and entertainment for the central plaza in Dubai in 2008 but the project was stopped by the financial crisis at the time. That project would have taken SONY to a much bigger urban scale. I think the period from 1995 to 2008 was the most interesting period for my architecture. There was a good push from clients to produce exciting projects.

Doha Exhibition and Convention Center, Doha, Qatar (2015) | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Helmut Jahn | STIR Tribute | STIRworld
Doha Exhibition and Convention Center, Doha, Qatar (2015) Image: Courtesy of JAHN

VB: I like your phrase, “I strive for an architecture, from which nothing can be taken away”.

HJ: Anything you don’t need is a benefit. Not only you have to have less things but with the things you have left you have to do more. Architecture is so difficult. It is easy to talk but very hard to do it. You know, good architecture is all about going with your gut. You have something on your mind and you just must go ahead and do it. It is important to keep asking these questions – is it the best way of doing something? Is there another way? You can’t stop at searching for a better solution just like architects did after Mies. They really thought he has achieved absolute perfection and from then on, we knew how to do architecture once and for all. But we have got to go forward!

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