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Helmut Jahn carried on Chicago’s legacy of architectural greatness

He was bold, inventive and prolific, designing memorable buildings across the nation and around the world.

Architect Helmut Jahn in 2000.
Architect Helmut Jahn at his Chicago offices in 2000.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

To admire Helmut Jahn’s boldly expressed buildings is to perceive a man of exceptional talent who both was nurtured by Chicago’s history of architectural greatness and contributed an enduring and inventive new chapter.

Jahn, who was killed in a bicycle crash Saturday in suburban Campton Hills near St. Charles, added path-breaking structural icons to Chicago’s storied architectural resume. Among them: the O’Hare Airport United Airlines terminal and its light-infused moving walkway, the 120 N. LaSalle building, State Street Village at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Art Deco-themed addition to the Chicago Board of Trade, the Accenture Tower and others, including the endangered James R. Thompson Center, with its pioneering curvilinear exterior and dramatic interior atrium.

Jahn was instrumental in the creative design of the second McCormick Place, now called Lakeside Center. More recently, he designed a spectacular skyscraper for 1000 S. Michigan Ave. that, though halted by the pandemic, will be his tallest building in the city if completed.

He was prolific, designing memorable buildings across the nation and world, including 1999 K Street in Washington, D.C., the blue-glass-and-granite Liberty Place in Philadelphia, Thyssenkrupp Test Tower in Rottweil, Germany, the Messeturm in Frankfurt, Germany, and the Sony Center in Berlin. His O’Hare terminal tour de force informed designs of new airport terminals — no longer just practical boxes — around the world.

“Jahn spoke with a clear voice, one that allowed for a celebration and the manipulation of steel and glass,” Joey Korom, a Chicago architecture critic and author of “The American Skyscraper 1850-1940: A Celebration of Height,” said on Monday.

Jahn, who was born in Germany, came to Chicago to study at IIT with renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, beginning an exceptionally long and influential career at the forefront of postmodern architecture. His ouvre never was defined by a single decade.

To Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, Jahn was a worthy member of Chicago’s venerated club of remarkable architects, adding to the city’s status as a global center of architecture.

“He really brought that postmodern movement to the city,” Miller said, “yet some of his buildings had the guidelines and principles of his training at IIT.”

Long before Helmut Jahn ever arrived, Chicago was a celebrated stage for world-class architecture. Jahn belonged on that stage — he knew it — and he proved it for half a century.

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