Born in Germany in 1940, Jahn came to Chicago in 1966 and remained based here for the next 55 years. Yesterday the 81-year-old was riding his bike in Campton Hills, near Seven Oaks, a 30-acre horse farm in St. Charles that he rehabbed for his wife, Deborah.
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According to a statement from the Campton Hills police, Jahn was riding on Old Lafox Road and failed to stop at a stop sign on Burlington Road. Cars traveling in both directions on Burlington hit Jahn, according to the statement. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
As news of the renowned architect’s sudden death surfaced today, numerous people paid tribute, including on Twitter. See some of the tributes on social media below.
Jen Masengarb, executive director of the American Institute of Architects’ Chicago chapter, issued a statement on behalf of the organization: “Helmut Jahn has been a fixture in Chicago’s architecture community for nearly 50 years; his work locally has undeniably changed Chicago itself and has redefined how design excellence plays a role in the shape and texture of our city.” AIA Chicago gave him its lifetime achievement award in 2012. Watch the short film the group made for the occasion lower in this story.
Chicago architect Lucien Lagrange, the designer of many Chicago condo buildings, most traditionally styled and a few sleekly modern like Jahn’s portfolio, called Jahn “one of the most creative architects that I have ever known.”
Preservation Futures is one of several groups supporting a push to repurpose Jahn’s Thompson Center in the midst of the state of Illinois’ renewed effort to sell it off. A sale could lead to a battle over demolition.
Jahn last year got involved in the effort to save the building, proposing that doors be taken off at sidewalk level to create a public rotunda and some interior changes be made to accommodate a hotel or other use, without sacrificing the soaring, kaleidoscopic effect of the building’s central atrium.
The architect cut a figure in Chicago for decades, noted since the 1980s for his fine tailored clothes and fast cars as well as his fitness regimen, which included running in Lincoln Park for decades beginning in the 1960s before running was a craze. With the opening of the Thompson Center in 1985 and some other projects, Jahn’s profile rose so high that he was pictured on the cover of GQ Magazine, which wrote of him: “Helmut Jahn, like his architecture, is stylish, theatrical and controversial. Okay, outrageous.”
At 26 years old, Jahn arrived in Chicago to attend the Illinois Institute of Technology, a famed school for aspiring architects that was developed under his fellow German immigrant Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Jahn left IIT before graduating, but was invited back almost four decades later to design the State Street Village student housing, a row of round-topped, metal-clad buildings that holler back at the black-edged rectilinear buildings by Mies that dominated the campus.
When he left school, Jahn joined the Chicago architecture firm C.F. Murphy Associates, in 1967. He later became executive vice president of the firm, which was renamed Murphy/Jahn. In 2012, the firm took the all-caps, singular name “Jahn.”
Some of Jahn’s earliest buildings are in northwest Indiana: the Michigan City public library, built in 1977 with translucent walls and an interior courtyard, and a round-topped gymnasium for the La Lumiere private school in La Porte. Others are in Kansas City and cities across the globe. Jahn made his first contribution to the Loop skyline in 1980 with the Xerox Center, now called 55 W. Monroe, which an Architect magazine review almost 25 years later described as one of the best expressions of “a sleek, machine-like minimalism” that architects everywhere were seeking at the time.
In subsequent decades, Jahn designed many more handsome buildings in Chicago and the suburbs. His work outside the Chicago area includes Liberty Place, a pair of towers with faceted tops built in Center City Philadelphia in 1987; and the Sony Center in Berlin, where a soaring roof canopy hangs high above an open plaza that is surrounded by new and old buildings. Sony Center opened in 2000. The last completed building in an online list of Jahn’s projects is an office building, wider at top than at bottom, like an upside-down trapezoid, completed in Reston, Va., in 2018.
Jahn’s last addition to the Chicago skyline may come posthumously. In 2015 he designed a condo tower for a site at 1000 S. Michigan Ave. Construction was slow to start and halted during the pandemic. In January, the developers of the 74-story tower sought to restart with a combination of for-sale and for-rent housing.
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