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Helmut Jahn left his mark on Chicago

The much-reviled, soon-to-vanish Thompson Center was only the most visible of his contributions.

Chicago architect Helmut Jahn in his 35 E. Wacker offices in 2000.
Chicago architect Helmut Jahn in his 35 E. Wacker offices in 2000.
Photo by Rich Hein

For many years, if you stood in Helmut Jahn’s office at 35 E. Wacker and looked out the window, you were confronted with the ugliest building in Chicago: the Sun-Times’ home at 401 N. Wabash, a squat, trapezoidal relic that, next to the Venetian splendor of the Wrigley Building, looked like an overturned gray galvanized metal tub set beside a spun sugar ivory Victorian wedding cake.

Perhaps to block that view, Jahn kept in the window a model of the latest version of his sailing sloop, Flash Gordon, which won the Chicago to Mackinac Race in 1995. Its presence was a violation of his own edict not to keep “personal things” at work; the reverse being true at his home, which was free from images of the stunning buildings he created around the world during his long career.

“A place for each,” he told me, when I stopped by Murphy/Jahn for a visit, years ago. Born in Nuremberg, he had a fierce devotion to order, both a very German and very architectural quality: all of his paper clips were red, his push pins gray.

Jahn didn’t hang around the office much anyway, spending half his time on the road, traveling the world, building dramatic structures in China, Thailand, Qatar, Germany, Poland.

His main gift to Chicago was the much-loved, much-hated Thompson Center. “Modern Masterpiece or Blue Turkey?” the Wall Street Journal asked when it opened in May 1985, and of course the correct answer is “both.” The soaring 17-story lobby, inspired by the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, was a must-see for Chicago tourists who gawked at its soaring blue and salmon enclosed space.

They also jammed the glass elevators, making it hard for state workers to get to their offices, one of a number of design flaws that made working there a challenge, particularly the greenhouse effect of that curved whale of glass that had sweltering state employees putting fans on their desks and cowering under umbrellas to protect them from the sun.

“It’s obscene,” Chicago architect Harry Weese said at the time, one of countless criticisms fired at Jahn, who never gave up on his vision. Just last year, he came up with a plan to save the Thompson Center, repurposing it as a kind of enclosed urban forest.

The state, in some strange, misguided display of penny-wise/pound-foolish economy, stopped maintaining the building years ago. There were strips of gray duct tape holding the carpet together in the governor’s office. When Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced it would take $375 million to repair and clean the building, nobody blinked at that figure, more than twice what it cost to build the place, put on the market last week.

So if you are the type who looks for silver linings in tragedy, Jahn’s death Saturday afternoon, at age 81, in a bicycle accident near his home in St. Charles, means that at least he didn’t suffer that grimmest of fate for an architect: to see his buildings torn down. Cold comfort to his loved ones, no doubt, and to the architects who revere him.

Even should the Thompson Center come down, Chicago will retain marvelous Jahn structures: the Xerox Center, an early work, built in 1978, the aluminum and glass curtain wall doing a friendly curve at the corner of Monroe and Dearborn. United Airlines Terminal One at O’Hare, including its neon-lit, Gershwin-serenaded walkway.

My favorite Jahn building is the Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago, its glass-domed reading room outfitted with a working air conditioning system and the actual books tucked away in sub-basements reached by a wondrous automated retrieval system.

Jahn came to Chicago in 1966, to study under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, adding a whimsy to the former Bauhaus chief’s minimalism or, if you prefer, brutalism. Since Mies came here under the wing of Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1930s, you can draw a direct line from Louis Sullivan through Wright, to Mies, to Jahn and ... well, the line sort of ends there.

The most exciting architect today in Chicago, if not the world, is Jeanne Gang, and Jahn embarrassed himself in 2019 by his sour grapes decrying of Studio Gang’s selection for the $1 billion-plus O’Hare expansion. But this is a time for appreciation, not criticism. The man left his mark.