Renowned architect Helmut Jahn killed in bike crash near St. Charles home

Jahn, who designed the Thompson Center and other iconic buildings, was struck by two vehicles and killed Saturday while riding his bicycle in Campton Hills.

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Architect Helmut Jahn at his Chicago offices on May 9, 2000.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Helmut Jahn, the famed German architect who designed the James R. Thompson Center and other iconic buildings, died Saturday afternoon when he was struck by two vehicles while riding his bicycle in suburban Campton Hills.

Jahn, who lived in nearby St. Charles, was riding his bike north on Old Lafox Road near Burlington Road about 3:30 p.m. when he failed to brake at a stop sign, according to a news release from Campton Hills police. Two vehicles traveling in opposite directions on Burlington then struck the 81-year-old.

He was pronounced dead at the scene, police said.

The driver of one of the vehicles was taken to Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva with injuries that weren’t thought to be life-threatening, police said. The other driver and his passenger weren’t injured.

Jahn was born near Nuremberg, Germany, and moved to Chicago in 1966 as a graduate student. He enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology and studied under the modernist pioneer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, another German architect who designed Chicago’s Federal Plaza and the Seagram Building, among other notable projects.

Jahn’s impact can be seen across the world in designs ranging from the Sony Center in Berlin, Germany, to the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand. His projects in Illinois include the Chicago Police Department’s Area 2 Headquarters in Pullman and the sleek, modern United Airlines Terminal at O’Hare International Airport, which includes a moving walkway famous for its colorful lighting.

Jahn’s wife and his design firm didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Jim Goettsch, another prominent Chicago architect who worked on projects with Jahn, said he was having a hard time processing the news of his peer’s sudden death.

“It’s really hard to believe. Just can’t quite fathom that he’s not there,” said Goettsch, who assisted Jahn with the Xerox Center and the Thompson Center, one of the late architect’s more controversial designs.

Goettsch drew a through line connecting Jahn to famous architects of the mid-1960s, namely van der Rohe, who influenced some of his student’s work. Goettsch, however, noted that Jahn ultimately “reinterpreted certain fundamental aspects” of van der Rohe’s style, which he said “gave energy” to the profession.

“His buildings were certainly anything but boring,” Goettsch said of Jahn. “He maybe temporarily dipped his toe in the postmodern world. But for the most part, I think he gave that up relatively quickly and started … an expansion of the way that [van der Rohe] was working, having very much to do with the art of architecture [and] not just constructing art.”

Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said Jahn’s death came as a “shock to the architectural world.”

“He was a world-renowned architect and a world force,” Miller said.

Miller described Jahn as a titan of Chicago architecture, referencing him in the same breath as some of the city’s most revered figures — Daniel Burnham, John Root, Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. He added that Jahn’s design of the Thompson Center “really put him on the world map” and also introduced Chicago to postmodernist architecture.

Jahn was just 39 when he designed the massive structure, which is located at 100 W. Randolph St. and houses state government offices. The building, which was completed in 1985, was originally called the State of Illinois Center but was later renamed in 1993 after former Illinois Gov. James Thompson Sr., the Republican commonly known as “Big Jim.”

In a blog post, the nonprofit Chicago Architecture Center noted the building “exhibits a Postmodern sense of playfulness with subtle references to the past and the future.” Adored by some and derided as ugly by others, the Thompson Center was officially placed on the market last week by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who announced a request for proposals for the sale of the building that officials concede could need more than $500 million in repairs.

“The sale of the Thompson Center has been discussed for nearly 20 years, and we are taking another important step to making it a reality,” Pritzker said in a statement.

The government building has suffered from years of deferred maintenance, and state workers have reported continued trouble with noise and temperature control. A sale could possibly lead to its redevelopment or demolition.

Earlier this month, Landmarks Illinois named the Thompson Center as one of Illinois’ most endangered places for the fourth straight year. Jahn last year issued an impassioned plea for the structure’s preservation that looked to thwart Pritzker’s desire to get top dollar for the building and its full-block site in the Loop.

Jahn’s plan, outlined in a 10-page document shared with the Sun-Times last February, sought to adapt the building for offices, a hotel or perhaps “co-living” apartments. He also proposed removing the doors and making its atrium outdoor but sheltered space.

“A demolition and replacement would not only take a long time but seeks high density without considering public benefits,” Jahn said. “We need not more bigger buildings but buildings which improve the public space. Examples in many cities show that sensitive repurposing of buildings has produced better results than replacing them.”

Contributing: David Roeder, Rachel Hinton

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