A year after his death, Helmut Jahn’s firm looks forward with new projects and a rebranded name: Jahn/
“This Jahn slash is the opening of what comes next. Trying to convey the optimism of what the future holds.”
The spectacular, and much maligned, James R. Thompson Center will be an office building reborn in a few years, if all goes according to plan.
This is as it should be. The last three Illinois governors tried to send this postmodern icon to the scrap heap, citing the building’s nine-figure rehab costs while ignoring its architectural importance.
But when preservationists and others started speaking up for the building in 2017, the most prominent voice was that of its architect, Helmut Jahn.
“Repurposing the building the right way could go beyond what the building ever was, making it better, more public and a place where you want to work, stay overnight, live or just visit and feel good,” Jahn said in a Thompson Center reuse plan he and his firm created on their own and released in February 2020.
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“Miracles and dreams can become real,” Jahn said.
Developer Michael Reschke, chairman of Prime Group, announced last December that his firm would buy and rehab the Thompson Center, turning to Jahn’s firm to handle the job. It was bittersweet: Jahn died May 8, 2021 in a bicycling accident in St. Charles.
“Very difficult,” said Jahn’s son, Evan Jahn, who became president of the firm after his father’s death. “Still is.”
A year of change
This week, the firm marks the year that's passed since Jahn’s death.
The company is continuing design work on the Thompson Center and seeing other projects nearing completion, such as the Pritzker Military Archive Center, in Somers, Wisconsin, 65 miles north of Chicago.
“My office was next to his,” said Managing Director Philip Castillo. “It’s different not having that constant challenge. Helmut always challenged us to be better and do better. It’s now falling on our shoulders to do that.”
The firm is also rebranding itself from JAHN to Jahn/ — with the forward slash. It's the third branding of the 85-year-old firm which started as C.F. Murphy, then Murphy/Jahn, and then became JAHN about 10 years ago.
“When we talk about what the new graphical element really represents ... this most important thing — this Jahn slash — is the opening of what comes next,” Evan Jahn said. “Trying to convey the optimism of what the future holds.”
“People were wondering how does the firm survive when Helmut was the one doing all the work?” Castillo mused. In truth, teams of architects and designers worked with Helmut Jahn, producing icons such as the Sony Center in Berlin, the United Airlines stunning Terminal 1 at O’Hare, and the Thompson Center, which opened in 1985.
What might be most difficult to replace or replicate is the role Helmut Jahn played as a civic voice when it comes to Chicago architecture. As was the case with his 2020 Thompson Center plan, Helmut Jahn had the ability to put forth and publish his own ideas on architecture, preservation and urban planning. Evan Jahn, Castillo and fellow managing director Steven Cook said they were prepared to pick up that mantle.
Evan Jahn, who is not an architect, said his role is managing client relationships and the firm’s operations, while Castillo and Cook handle building design.
“Helmut operated as both the firm’s designated creative and corporate leader, but that’s a tremendous undertaking for one person,” Evan Jahn said.
JAHN/’s would-be ace at McCormick Place?
One example of the firm’s continued embrace in improving the public realm might be found in Jahn/’s ill-fated McCormick Place Lakeside Center casino design.
Of the five casino site finalists selected by the city, Jahn/’s was the ace of the bunch. But it was discarded in March because the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority said those who book conventions at McCormick Place didn’t want gaming so close by. The MPEA also said it would need a new building if Lakeside Center was converted into a casino.
Las Vegas shows gambling and conventions can successfully mix. And lost Lakeside Center space could be made up by constructing a new hall west of DuSable Lake Shore Drive, connecting McCormick Place’s south and west buildings — something the MPEA even quietly pondered back in 2017.
Jahn/’s plan would have added transparent glass, lighting, and opened up Lakeside Center to its surroundings. The redesign would have made it a more outfacing public building.
And the project would have been a coming home of sorts. Jahn worked alongside Gene Summers of C.F. Murphy on the building’s design more than 50 years ago.
Cook said the McCormick Place casino could have been a site “embraced by everyone in Chicago”— no small thing given the three current finalists are being loudly rejected by civic groups, alderpersons and residents.
“There will be something else that comes up for that building,” Cook said. “It's just a matter of time.”
Maybe there’s a shot. As Jahn himself said when the Thompson Center seemed doomed: “Miracles and dreams can become real.”
Lee Bey is architecture critic for the Sun-Times and a member of the Editorial Board.
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