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posted: 7/18/2021 1:00 AM

Constable: Exhibit shows how Helmut Jahn’s architectural trail started in Chicago and suburbs

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  • Video: Helmut Jahn's innovative style


In 1982, when Newsweek magazine christened Helmut Jahn the "Flash Gordon of American architecture," the innovative architect wasn't sure what to think.

"At the time, Helmut didn't know who Flash Gordon was," says architectural historian Zurich Esposito, who is working with senior curator Michael Wood to produce a design retrospective, titled "Helmut Jahn: Life + Architecture," opening Friday at the Chicago Architecture Center.

Jahn eventually warmed up to the idea of being Flash Gordon, the futuristic space hero of comic strips, television and movies. A world champion sailor, Jahn named his boat Flash Gordon, and a miniature model of that ship still is visible in the third-story window of his office at the Chicago headquarters of JAHN, the architectural firm. His only child, Evan Jahn, vice president of the firm, has a master's degree in environmental management and sustainability, and managed his father's sailing team.

Helmut Jahn, 81, was killed May 8 when the bicycle he was riding was hit by two cars after apparently he pedaled through a stop sign in Campton Hills. The accident was not far from his historic Seven Oaks Farm in St. Charles, where his equestrian wife, Deborah Jahn, built a reputation for world champion Saddlebred horses and Hackney ponies. Jahn blazed an architectural trail for half a century with works indicative of modernism, postmodernism steel and glass, and uniquely Jahn.

"He built, and others followed. He was always a leader," Wood says.

The Chicago Architecture Center exhibition, "part of an international outpouring of appreciation for Jahn's legacy," features models, sketches and the stories behind 140 of his projects worldwide, as well as testimonials from people who knew him.

Born in the German town of Zirndorf near Nuremberg, the son of a teacher and a housewife, Jahn studied architecture at the Technical University of Munich. He came to Chicago in 1966 on a Rotary Foundation scholarship to study architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

"He came at a perfect time to see Chicago firing on all cylinders. He caught that wave and never stopped," Wood says. "This was a place where he could exercise his ideas."

Hired by C.F. Murphy Associates in 1967, Jahn's first major project was the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, which has hosted political conventions, an Elvis Presley concert and sporting events, survived a partial roof collapse during a major windstorm, and now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Embracing the idea of designing public buildings, Jahn created the One Liberty Place skyscraper in Philadelphia, the open-air Sony Center in Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, the kaleidoscopic, neon tunnel in the United Airlines Terminal at O'Hare, the Cosmopolitan residential tower in Warsaw, the Cityspire and Park Avenue Tower in Manhattan, the split oval towers of Post Tower in Bonn, Germany, and the 10-story office complex at 55 Shuman Blvd. in Naperville.

One of Jahn's most controversial designs is the James R. Thompson Center, the governmental office building for which he was awarded the 1986 Distinguished Building Award of the American Institute of Architects' Chicago chapter. With its sloping glass facade, asymmetric design and colorful panels, the building made an impact. The state now wants to sell it, which means it could be razed. Preservationists are trying to save it.

"I don't mind someone criticizing, because he does just the same favor as someone who praises you," Jahn told GQ magazine in May 1985, when he graced the cover wearing a wide-brimmed, gray fedora. "Controversy is good. I'd rather have people talk about our buildings than say, 'Well, that's just another building that I didn't see.'"

Not all famed architects were as welcoming to others' opinions.

"You knew if he was in the room, even if he didn't say anything," Esposito says of Jahn. "On one hand, he could be very outspoken. But he knew when to hold it back. He was a good listener."

An honest and opinionated speaker, Jahn "was always a better listener," adds Wood. A dashing dresser and athlete who enjoyed running, skiing, sailing and biking, Jahn was remarkably persuasive, Wood says.

"He had an aura. He was special. Helmut was able to take a lot of clients on a journey they didn't expect to be on," Esposito says.

The best example of that may be Jahn persuading the strait-laced Republican Gov. Jim Thompson to build the iconic state government building that now bears the late governor's name and features bold salmon, blue and red panels, a massive atrium and sloping steel and glass.

"This is a stone-cold Republican talking, mind you, a conservative get-the-government-off-your-backs politico, and here he is, embracing a radically weird state-financed building, staking his claim as a papa of postmodernism," read the "Helmut Jahn Has An Edifice Complex" GQ cover story. "Such is the persuasive power of Helmut Jahn."

Leading the trend toward buildings that took on environmental concerns, Jahn "always embraced new technology," Esposito says.

"Every time, he was right on the cusp," Wood says.

And he wasn't willing to surrender the Thompson Center without pushing back. Always using small sketchbooks to design his projects, Jahn responded to demolition speculation by drawing up plans to redesign that building to include an open-air area and repurposed spaces to increase their use.

"He thought of it as a great urban spot," Wood says. "This building should have another act."

What had been known as the Chicago 7 group of leading architects expanded their reputation to include an up-and-coming Jahn in the late 1970s, and Jahn quickly established a global reputation with buildings.

"This is a reminder that architecture is an international sport," says Wood, noting that brought out the competitive side of Jahn.

"If he was going to do something, he did it well," Esposito says. "If he was going to play a game, he won that game."