Standing in a corner of downtown Chicago like a dazzling rocket of mirrored glass and salmon pink steel, the James R. Thompson Center, more than any other building, encapsulates the flamboyant work of German-American architect Helmut Jahn, who died aged 81 in a bicycle accident.
The dazzling government building, originally known as the Illinois State Center, is a fitting monument to the larger-than-life architect, as lush as it is divisive.
The big-budget project drew fierce criticism when it was completed in 1985. The Chicago Tribune critic described it as “a chunky chunk of little grace or elegance”; the pink and turquoise color palette reminded the New York Times critic of “cheap commercial buildings of the 1950s, bus stations and suburban schools.” Plagued with practical problems, including an ice-based cooling system that notoriously failed, leading to interior temperatures of 43 ° C and falling granite slabs, it has been an expensive trophy for the state to maintain.
But this impetuous bastion of government services has also proven to be one of the most widely used indoor public spaces in the city. Conceived as an autonomous world, where you can have a coffee, buy a suit, visit an art gallery, renew your driver’s license, attend a concert and take a train home, without having to leave, it has served as an animated, all-in-one civic mall. The soaring conical atrium remains an exhilarating space to find, lined with elevators, stairs, and a colorful steel-braced cat crib that looks like the Center Pompidou upside down.
Despite a growing appreciation among a younger generation, re-evaluating this maligned period of postmodernism, the building faces the threat of demolition. Last week it was put up for sale, damn it like a drain on state finances. A recent zoning ordinance would pave the way for the site to allow for one of the tallest skyscrapers in the city.
It’s fair to say that if Jahn were still around, he’d be eager to be at the front of the queue to design it – upon learning of the site’s potential fate in 2017, proposed a 110-story super tower sprout from the side of its conical building.
Born near Nuremberg, Helmut was the son of Lena (née Werth) and Wilhelm, a teacher. He earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Technical University of Munich, before moving to Chicago in 1966 to study under the modernist master. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
He left without graduating, after refusing to follow tutors’ reports, and joined forces with Charles F. Murphy in 1967, taking sole control of the practice in 1981, when the firm was renamed Murphy / Jahn (renamed JAHN in 2012).
Moving away from the hard-line modernism of Mies, Jahn developed a bold and bombastic form of corporate postmodernism, designing corporate headquarters, banks, airports, and government buildings around the world that radiated the mighty pomp of the 1980s. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with using a building to connote achievement and some commercial power,” he said. “Great statesmen, great emperors, great dictators always build great buildings.”
Your skyscraper in A place of freedom in Philadelphia, completed in 1987, he crossed the city’s height limit with muscular swagger. Its thick shaft is topped by a cascade of angular chevrons in mirrored blue glass and granite bands, resembling the coachbuilder cousin of New York’s elegant Chrysler Building.
In 1988, for the United Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, he transformed the boring arrival experience with a kaleidoscopic disco tunnel, in collaboration with Canadian neon artist Michael Hayden, creating one of the most popular traveler experiences. memorable.
In Berlin, his Sony Center from the same year developed some of the civic ideas of his Illinois government building, conceived as an open public forum under a billowy cloth umbrella. “I remember when the president of Sony saw the model,” Jahn recalled later. “He said, ‘Mr. Jahn, where are the doors? ‘ I said, ‘There are no doors. And he said, ‘But then everyone can come in.’ So, I said, “You got it!”
Jahn’s style has been described as a kind of romantic high-tech, his buildings often celebrating their structure and inner workings, but always with an added dramatic flair. As he himself said: “We do not build decoration, we decorate construction”. He always worked closely with the engineers from the beginning of the design process, in particular with his compatriot Werner Sobek, describing his approach as “archi-neering”. Form, he said, should “follow force rather than function.”
Always knowledgeable about the media and never without jokes, Jahn took his personal image as seriously as his buildings. A fan of Versace suits and fedora hats, which gave him the appearance of a gangster, he drove Porsche Carreras, owned several racing yachts and always drew with a Montblanc fountain pen. Nicknamed Flash Gordon, he even appeared on the cover of GQ magazine in 1985, who called him “controversial, abrasive, handsome, young, fanatic, quite serious and, these days, very very hot.”
By the late 2000s, Jahn’s popularity had waned. He came to be seen as a kind of dinosaur, associated with the excesses of previous decades. in a Interview 2018, complained that customers were too risk-averse and that most of the work was assigned to faceless global conglomerates.
His practice had shrunk to a third of the size it was at its peak. Criticizing the attitude of the big tech companies, he complained about their loss of sense of style. “They don’t care about their image anymore,” he said. “In the past, these people wore fancy suits and now they run in T-shirts.”
He is survived by his wife, Deborah Lampe, his son, Evan, two granddaughters, and a brother, Otmar.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism