Helmut Jahn, 1988

Helmut Jahn, 1988

Helmut Jahn


Helmut Jahn arrived in the U.S. as a young architecture school graduate from Germany and, after a meteoric rise in the architectural establishment of Chicago, has enjoyed a steadily successful career. He is best known for large public buildings in urban contexts, such as airports, arenas, and tall office buildings around the world.


Helmut Jahn (born January 4, 1940, in Zirndorf, Germany) arrived in the U.S. as a young architecture school graduate from Germany and, after a meteoric rise in the architectural establishment of Chicago, has enjoyed a steadily successful career. He is best known for large public buildings in urban contexts, such as airports, arenas, and tall office buildings around the world. While he remained committed to the language of modern architecture throughout his life (with a brief inflection towards postmodernism in the 1980s), unlike many of his peers he would not shy away from populist gestures such as colorful, reflective materials, playful light installations, and references to previous styles. His practice today, JAHN, has offices in Chicago, Berlin, Doha, and Shanghai. His business volume consistently ranks among the top twenty architectural firms in the United States. Helmut Jahn’s architectural career provides a compelling parable of an artist’s rise under the spell of an influential father figure, of rebellion, rejection, and return.

Childhood and Education

Helmut Jahn was born on January 4, 1940, in Germany in the small provincial town of Zirndorf, close to the city of Nuremberg in the northern Bavarian region of Franconia. The town had about eight thousand inhabitants at the time and was known for its toy industry and a historic center with idyllic timber frame and stone houses. Helmut Jahn’s father, Wilhelm Anton Jahn, was a school teacher and, towards the end of World War II, had been interred in a U.S. POW camp in Philadelphia. His father’s positive recollections and the visible presence of the American Army in his home town (“Adams Barracks”) during the postwar years fueled the boy’s interest in the United States. Jahn had witnessed the devastating wartime destruction by British bombers of the nearby city of Nuremberg in 1945 and was disappointed with the lack of quality of the postwar rebuilding efforts. He became interested in architecture and after high school attended the Technical University in Munich, where he received his diploma in architecture in 1965.

While the school was not particularly known for architectural innovation, important and influential architects such as August Thiersch und Theodor Fischer had taught there in the early twentieth century and emphasized the need to design for human scale and urban context while honoring local craft traditions and materials. Walter Gropius, the famous founder of the Bauhaus in 1919 was the school’s most famous alumnus. When Helmut Jahn enrolled, professors such as Gerhard Weber and Gustav Hassenpflug taught modern architecture in the crisp, minimalist, and structurally expressive style of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, while others such as Hans Döllgast emphasized craft traditions and practical modesty in architectural design. Mies van der Rohe was then and still is now considered one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century, whose buildings combined simple and carefully considered structural solutions with formal and material beauty. Mies had left Germany in 1938, a few years after Hitler came to power, following an invitation to head the architecture school at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. His much-published steel and glass skyscrapers of the 1950s in Chicago and New York had come to symbolize postwar American affluence and even democratic values. While Jahn lived in Munich, the city’s premier newspaper had its new headquarters built in a decidedly Miesian fashion by the architect Detlef Schreiber (1930-2003), who was married to the sister of Mies’s grandson Dirk Lohan. This so-called “Black House” was considered one of the best examples of postwar Miesian architecture in Germany. It might thus not surprise that Helmut Jahn felt drawn to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Jahn first worked for a year for prominent Munich architect Peter von Seidlein, and, after winning a Rotary Club Fellowship, left for Chicago in 1966 in order to continue his studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, whose campus had been designed by Mies. He had kept in touch with Mies’s grandson, Dirk Lohan, who had been a fellow student at Munich’s Technical University, and asked him about job prospects in Chicago.[1] Mies had retired from his professorship at the architecture school and was plagued by health problems, but his teachings and architectural ideals were still very much alive and consistently taught at the school. At IIT, Jahn studied with the structural engineer Fazlur Khan, an engineer with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Khan’s development of the tube structure for skyscrapers led to the building of the John Hancock Center (1965-69), which was under construction when Jahn arrived in Chicago, and the city’s tallest building at the time. Four years later, construction began at SOM’s Sears Tower (today Willis Tower) in Chicago (1970-73), which was also based on Fazlur Kahn’s ideas and was for many years the tallest tower in the world. Jahn had chosen one of the most architecturally exciting cities in the world for the start of his career.

Early Designs

Jahn’s German architecture diploma was equivalent to a master’s degree in the U.S., so there was no real need for him to finish the three-year course of study he was enrolled in at IIT. One of his professors, Gene Summers, recognized Jahn’s talent and voracious appetite and stamina for work and ended up hiring him. Summers had been Mies van der Rohe’s right-hand man for many years and had recently joined the Chicago architecture firm of C. F. Murphy as job architect and lead designer for an enormous convention center, “McCormick Place” on the shores of Lake Michigan, about 2.5 miles south of downtown Chicago. A convention hall at this location had been championed for many years by Robert McCormick, whose prominent Chicago family had founded the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, and who was publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The first “McCormick Place” had only stood for seven years before being consumed by a spectacular fire in 1967. It had been designed in 1960 by the firm of Shaw, Naess and Murphy.[2] C. F. Murphy (1890-1985) had taken over the firm in the meantime and was an obvious choice for a new McCormick Place. Gene Summers became job architect and brought his former student Helmut Jahn with him. Summers designed McCormick Place in the most Miesian idiom imaginable. The new building of black steel and glass with an enormous canopy roof on very few, thin supports contrasted visibly with the white stone building that preceded it. Instead, it seemed like a much enlarged version of Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery in Berlin (1963-68), which was going up at the same time and for which Gene Summers had been chief designer when still at Mies’s office. It also paid homage to a project by Mies van der Rohe for a convention hall in 1954. The new McCormick center opened in January of 1971 with a 300,000 square foot exhibition hall. “The building was as Miesian as they come – a crisp exercise in right angles and black steel, straight by the Bauhaus Numbers.”[3]

The design of the McCormick center turned out to be significant for Helmut Jahn in another aspect. He collaborated on it with a young interior designer in the firm, Deborah Lampe, who, in 1970, became his wife. Gene Summers retired in 1973 and Jahn stayed on with C. F. Murphy, where he soon took over Summers’s job as lead designer and had a remarkable ascent. Ten years after the new McCormick Place opened, Jahn became a partner and the company was renamed Murphy/Jahn.

The first structure Jahn was solely responsible for as lead designer almost derailed his career. The Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri (1972-74), is a multipurpose hall with eight thousand seats for hockey and basketball games but also events such as the National Republican Convention in 1976. One of its most visible characteristics, the three giant outside trusses that carry the roof and ensure an open interior without support columns, are an idea perhaps inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall at IIT (1954-56). In 1979 a ferocious storm with wind gusts of 70 miles per hour and massive downpours led to the collapse of the arena’s roof. The main reasons for the disaster were probably under-dimensioned fastening bolts and insufficient drainage pipes for the roof causing greatly increased loads from backlogged rainwater. Luckily no one was in the building at the time, and it was rebuilt within a year, but the accident and the ensuing publicity temporarily damaged Jahn’s reputation.

In his early years at C. F. Murphy, Jahn continued to follow the direction of the late Mies van der Rohe, who had—supposedly—said “less is more.” Just like the Kemper Arena, one critic remarked, his buildings “…were almost equally adherent to less-is-more principles. Among these were the Fourth District Court Building in Maywood and the John Marshall Courts Building (1976) in Richmond, Va.”[4] But soon Jahn would strike out with designs that were more playful and irreverent than Mies’s somewhat predictable formulas. Perhaps most astonishing was his courageous and unusual design for the Michigan City (IN) Library, a 30.000 square foot building in a small industrial town about sixty miles from Chicago. Jahn designed a one-story building with a central courtyard that looked like a sequence of fourteen diagonally set sheds, but consisted of a continuous interior space under saw-tooth skylights. The outside walls were either translucent or transparent. Clearly, the building’s expressive form and nod to the industrial heritage and context of its site went much beyond what Mies van der Rohe would have considered. It won several design awards in the following years. Deborah Lampe provided the interior design, in particular the strong colors for air conditioning pipes, furniture, and carpets.

Since the oil crisis in the mid-1970s, Jahn had been interested in energy-efficient structures. The external blinds at his Auraria Library in Denver (1975) limited the influx of sunlight during the summer but allowed the warming rays of the lower sun in during the winter. The St. Mary’s Gymnasium in South Bend, Indiana (1977), was sunk into the ground and surrounded by an earth berm. This decreased the visible scale of the huge hall, and improved its ability to retain heat.

Jahn’s most significant building of that period was the Xerox Center in Chicago designed in the late 1970s and opened in 1980. It is located at the corner of Monroe and Dearborn Streets (today 55 West Monroe), in the heart of Chicago’s loop and near classic architectural masterpieces by Louis Sullivan (Carson, Pirie Scott Department Store) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (Federal Center). The 880.000 square foot office building was Jahn’s first high-rise structure and paid homage to its neighbors while also displaying a certain irreverence towards them. The rounded curve was seen by some as a nod to Sullivan’s famous department store corner entrance, and the relentless grid on the façade was clearly derivative of Mies van der Rohe’s work nearby. But Jahn’s rounded corner turns full circle on the roof to shelter a penthouse for machinery and on the ground floor deflects visitors to its northern and western flanks as it swings inwards towards their entrances. The façade’s grid has white spandrels, fully reflective glass, and a smooth surface while Mies’s dark building displays carefully detailed lines and shadows. Jahn changed the height of the spandrels to provide larger windows on the northern side, where the least amount of sunlight hits the building.


Having already espoused an architecture that went beyond the modernist orthodoxy of Mies van der Rohe and his immediate followers made it easy for Jahn to fall in with a group of rebel architects in 1978 who called themselves “The Chicago Seven” (named in commemoration of the first “Chicago Seven”—seven demonstrators against the Vietnam War who stood trial in Chicago in 1970). The group aimed their protest against the predominance of doctrinaire modernism in the style of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and others. The first nucleus of the group (the “Chicago Four,” consisting of Stanley Tigerman, Stewart Cohen, Larry Booth, and Ben Weese) had formed in protest against the 1976 traveling exhibition “One Hundred Years of Architecture in Chicago” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.[5] This show had presented the city’s architectural history as the rise of modernism through predecessors and followers of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Finding this approach too limited and a distortion of the city’s true architectural history, the young secessionists staged a counter exhibition at the Time Life Building in Chicago, which attracted widespread attention. When James Ingo Freed, Thomas Beeby, and James Nagle joined, the name “Chicago Seven” was born and stuck, even after more architects, such as Helmut Jahn, became affiliated. (Ironically, the exhibition on Chicago architecture contained numerous examples of the work of Jahn’s firm C. F. Murphy Assoc.) James Nagle commented on the reasons for their intervention, “It wasn’t Mies that got boring. It was the copiers that got boring… You got off an airplane in the 1970s, and you didn’t know where you were.”[6] Helmut Jahn joined the group for their 1978 project “the exquisite corpse” which showed variations on the Chicago townhouse that avoided Miesian minimalism by embracing variety and historical references to “demonstrate the harmonious variety of a cityscape allowed to develop through minimally controlled ‘accidents’.”[7] These townhouses abandoned modernist simplicity, and introduced great spatial variety and forms long out of fashion among modernists, such as barrel vaults and symmetrical façade arrangements. As Nagle put it, “a lot of it really had to do with history… The appreciation of history made us all much better architects.”[8] While Beeby’s townhouse showed a semicircularPalladian window in its front, Helmut Jahn created a hybrid, whose longitudinal volume was covered by a barrel vault and contained a series of multistory spaces, but also classic modernist elements such as transparent glass walls. It is important to remember that the main activities of this group happened much before the major ‘postmodern’ buildings went up, such as Michael Graves’ Portland building in Portland, Oregon (1982), or the AT&T (today Sony) building by Philip Johnson (1984). The Chicago Seven were soon regarded as the mid-western answer to the “New York Five,” a group of fiveNew York Cityarchitects(Peter Eisenman,Michael Graves,Charles Gwathmey,John HejdukandRichard Meier) who continued to embrace the language of classic modern architecture, but often in a fractured and complex fashion.[9]

In 1980, the Chicago Seven helped to launch a mock competition for “late entries” to the Chicago Tribune Tower competition of 1922, which had led to a historicist high-rise with details borrowed from Gothic cathedrals by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells. The building had, not surprisingly, been omitted from the “One Hundred Years of Architecture in Chicago” exhibition.[10] Helmut Jahn’s clever “late entry” doubled the height of the existing Chicago Tribune tower by placing a modernized but recognizable version of itself above it.[11]

Jahn’s association with a renegade group of designers did not hinder his firm’s success. In 1981 the firm was renamed Murphy/Jahn in recognition of Jahn’s new role as president—a much deserved promotion, according to the Chicago Tribune, due to his “talent, aggressiveness and an immense appetite for work.”[12] The company immediately won an award for a distinguished building for their De La Garza Career Center in Chicago from the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects.[13]

While the short-lived group of the Chicago Seven, according to Thomas Beeby, “didn’t agree on anything,”[14] it represented ” the first broadly conceptualized alternative to Chicago’s modernist architectural canon, […] despite the reliance on form, sometimes ironic and sometimes nostalgic.”[15]

Helmut Jahn ended up pursuing his own brand of a hybrid postmodernism, in which historical forms were occasionally referenced, but the minimalism of Mies van der Rohe’s architecture remained a permanent backbone. Jahn’s historicist winks were less far-fetched than the Palladian innuendos in Thomas Beeby’s work, and closer to Chicago’s and U.S. architectural history, in particular the Art Deco mode of the American skyscraper. In his addition to the Chicago Board of Trade Building of 1983, the twenty-three story skyscraper reflects the forms of the neighboring main building of 1930 (Holabird & Root) in a flat, reflective glass façade. Art Deco skyscrapers, Jahn declared “…were built during one of the most glorious times in our cities. These buildings were powerful and exuberant expressions of architectural form giving.”[16] Similarly, the cascading forms of Jahn’s Northwestern Center of 1987 seemed to echo the sequential semi-circles of typical Art Deco design. The façade itself consists of a smooth surface of reflective glass in the mild blue color of Chicago’s sky on temperate fall days. But in the eyes of the Chicago Tribune’s critic, this façade treatment gave the building an “appearance of insubstantiality. Jahn is only one of many architects to employ reflective glass curtain walls on downtown office buildings, yet his idiosyncratic manipulation of design elements yields a peculiar feeling of theatrical ephemerality. You find yourself wondering whether a giant stagehand is going to come along one day and strike the set.”[17] The building’s strength lay inside, stamping Jahn “irrefutably as the city’s preeminent designer of spectacular public interiors that have revived the art of civic monumentality.” [18] Comparable to the fate of New York City’s Penn Station, which had been taken down in 1961 after its air rights were sold to the developer of the new Madison Square Garden, the Northwestern Center replaced a handsome 1911 railroad station after preservationists lost the battle to save it. The air rights above the station also had been sold, and Jahn created an office structure above (today called Citygroup Center). But, in marked contrast to Charles Luckman, the hapless architect of New York’s new Penn Station and arena above it, Jahn was mindful of the need for an appropriate departure and arrival space, and created a dramatic semi-circle above the main entrance and a glass-covered half-barrel vault interior, spacious and filled with daylight (today called Ogilvie Transportation Center).

In a similar vein, skyscrapers such as Philadelphia’s One Liberty Place of 1984, the Cityspire (1987), or 750 Lexington in New York City of 1989 all reference the formal language of the Art Deco contribution to the architecture of high-rise office buildings in the twentieth century. The staggered forms responded to setback laws in local building codes and were meant to let more light into the city streets. Decades later, Jahn used this formal language as an evocation of the skyscraper’s most heroic period, long after the setback laws had ceased to exist. Arguably, the reflective surface of many of his high rise buildings contributes to a higher level of light in the street as well.

Jahn understood the importance of having an identifiable persona as an architect, complete with a distinct style of appearance and expectable attributes. By several accounts, his wife Deborah helped him develop a sense of fashion. In the 1980s he sported, according to the Chicago Tribune, “colorful gangster getups” which usually included a fedora and expensive suits, while in later years he switched to “black everything.”[19] The magazine Gentleman’s Quarterly showed Jahn on its cover in 1985, wearing a Fedora hat and gazing straight at the reader: “Helmut Jahn has an Edifice Complex”[20] the magazine punned. Late in life, he discovered sailing as a serious hobby, and became very successful at it. In a rare moment of self-mocking irony – he christened his yachts with a nickname given to him as a result of his meteoric rise as an architect and the “cartoonish character of his skyscrapers:”[21] “Flash Gordon.” Despite the fact that in an office with more than one hundred and fifty employees and many commissions, Jahn could only be marginally involved in most projects, he emphasized his single-minded control over the design process and his reluctance in making designers partners. He later said,

If you ask the people who work with me, they’d probably say I work by myself, and tell them what to do, [but] if you ask me, I think I work in a team. Because I know what we are doing wouldn’t be possible if there wasn’t a group of people who work with me and make a lot of contributions. I don’t think I have ever made an effort to minimize the influence of those people, but the situation is such… that the media isn’t interested in anybody else, and they want to make you a hero, and they want to kill you and destroy you, too.[22]

This was proven true when Jahn designed what is still his most significant building in Chicago, the State of Illinois Center (today James R. Thompson Center), “which for all its serious shortcomings still presents the most breathtaking contemporary interior in the city.”[23] Indeed, the State of Illinois Center delivered an occasion of both triumph and tragedy for Jahn’s career. It had opened in 1985 and contained an enormous seventeen-story atrium ringed by offices inside a complex geometric formation of a quarter circle fitted into one square of Chicago’s downtown grid. Its curved side left a triangular plaza, fronted by the southeastern slope of its main façade, stepping back in three sections.

If nothing else, the building evoked superlatives from the critics. While the atrium was recognized as “one of the grandest and most visually successful spatial gestures any architect ever made in this city,”[24]the building’s outside appearance made it, according to the Chicago Tribune, “the most esthetically controversial office building ever constructed in Chicago.”[25] It “fails as a chunky and graceless object on the cityscape…”[26] and its “exterior walls of robin’s-egg blue and salmon-colored glass insult the classical dignity of the City Hall” [27] across the street. The New York Times agreed: “…the State of Illinois Center is hyperactive; it might be called architecture on amphetamines, a building that is so utterly relentless that it seems never to let you go… this is all pretty shrill, and not a little vulgar.” [28]

A large part of the façade lights the open atrium. This enormous glass section faces the sun for most of the day, and—not surprisingly—led to a much noted greenhouse effect inside. While critics assumed that “someone made the profound error of grossly underestimating how much air conditioning tonnage it would take to cool the building,”[29] the main reason was that the client had rejected the insulating ‘thermopane’ glass that Jahn had specified as too expensive and instead had single pane glass installed. The sun’s glare in the summer roasted “the occupants while creating blinding reflections on their computer screens. Several workers tried to solve the problem with sun umbrellas.”[30] In the winter the atrium’s interior was unbearably cold. Lawsuits and much notoriety followed. [31] After the state paid millions to rectify the situation with additional air conditioning, the taxpayer-funded building cost “$172 million, more than double the original estimate.”[32]

Helmut Jahn did not receive many new commissions in Chicago in the following years. The Thompson Center, Jahn once said, made his reputation around the world and killed it in Chicago.[33] In 1993, the building was renamed in honor of former Republican Illinois GovernorJames R. Thompson, who had hand-picked Helmut Jahn, seen the project through to completion, and remained one of his staunchest defenders.

Luckily, the commission for a new terminal for United Airlines at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport was already under way before the State of Illinois Center’s critical reception. Its two parallel concourses from steel and glass filled with natural light from above were seen as a major triumph in internal organization and architectural execution. The 744 foot long tunnel that connects them showed a strikingly innovative integration of movement, artificial light, and music. The artist Michael Hayden’s colorful fluorescent lights underneath the mirrored ceiling and behind the undulating glass block walls on either side change colors in unison with music (originally atonal music by William Kraft, today Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”). According to critic Paul Gapp of the Chicago Tribune, Jahn had “given United one of the most aesthetically extraordinary terminals in the nation” on a par with Eero Saarinen’s airports for Washington and New York City and restored “his own reputation as one of the nation’s most important architects.”[34]

From the beginning, Helmut Jahn was media savvy—he regularly commissioned large, sumptuously illustrated volumes about his work, which were usually short on critical discussions. The first one, by Nory Miller,[35] appeared in 1986 just after the State of Illinois Center had opened, without mentioning the building’s mixed reviews and climate problems. Setting the tone for its many sequels, this volume was basically an oversized photo album, with five hundred images and short descriptive texts but little context or analysis. It sufficed to recognize the architect as a “designer who weaves historicism, high tech schtick, abstraction and idiosyncratic manipulation of shapes, materials and colors into buildings about which it is impossible to feel neutral.”[36] His next biographer, Ante Gilbota, in a similarly overweight picture book in 1988 called Jahn with unabashed hyperbole the “unchallenged master of American architecture” but coined the term “romantic modernist” for him, which still rings true.

Global Practice

During the 1990s, Jahn built a strong reputation abroad. He had left “the excesses of his postmodern period behind him” and had returned to his “Miesian roots and a bold extension of the master’s austere aesthetic. More often than not, the result is architecture of impeccable quality and singular significance.”[37] By 1998, 60 percent of his work was in Germany. Most prominently, early on, Jahn designed the Messetower in Frankfurt (1988-1990), the tallest tower in Europe at the time. Jahn was still in his late postmodern mode and produced a slim, pyramid topped obelisk, dominating the emerging skyline of the German financial capital, and at the same time his most contextual German building, as its stone cladding employs the red sandstone typical for Frankfurt. Later came the sleek forty-one-story Post Tower (2000-2002) in Bonn, a 10 foot wide office building (“Handtuchhaus”–towel house) at Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm 70 (1992-94), an enormous shopping and office center near the Zoo railroad station in Berlin (Neues Kranzler Eck, 1998-2000), and airport buildings in Frankfurt (1989, 1994), Munich (1999) and Cologne (2000). Jahn worked with the minimalist aesthetic of Mies van der Rohe but always enhanced it with color and bold gestures that might exaggerate structural elements or cantilevered canopy roofs.

Perhaps his most consequential urban project in Germany is Berlin’s Sony Center (2000) at the former heart of the German capital. Potsdamer Platz, once the city’s busiest traffic circle, had been badly destroyed in World War II. When Berlin was divided by the Wall in 1961, its remaining ruins were demolished to make room for the wide “death strip,” mine fields, dog runs, and access roads for the East German border police on the eastern side of the concrete barrier. This barren urban wasteland was targeted in an international competition for a new master plan. A number of German and international architects were charged with its execution. Helmut Jahn won the largest and arguably most important, triangular piece consisting of a twenty-six-story office tower for the German railroad DB and ten-story-high buildings along the perimeter with apartments and Sony’s European headquarters. In the center, however, is the Forum, a vast interior space which gives access to a series of movie theaters; Berlin’s esteemed ‘Kinemathek,’ a film museum and research library; and several restaurants. The open atrium is clearly reminiscent of that at Chicago’s State of Illinois Center fifteen years earlier. But, as a result of the latter’s challenges with heating and cooling, this space is part of the outside environment. An open roof structure lets in the outside air, but keeps rain and snow at bay. On its membrane sails a color changing light show is projected every night, designed and programmed by French lighting designer Yann Kersale. The effects are visible both inside the plaza and from many parts of the city of Berlin, turning Sony Center into an effective “City Crown”—a much discussed concept in the Berlin of the 1920s, where the old role of the central cathedral was rethought for a more secular age.[38] The interior space has proven to be immensely popular year round, despite unwelcoming temperatures for much of the year. This attempt at building a new center for the united city has proven more successful with tourists, however, than Berliners, who tend to stay in their established neighborhoods in this traditionally multi-centric city.

Here, and in many others of Jahn’s recent projects he collaborated with German architect and engineer Werner Sobek on structures whose “performance” is optimized, so that less energy is used to build them and to maintain them as comfortable working and living environments. Jahn introduced the term “archineering” for this approach, which broadens the scope of materials to be used (e.g. textile membranes) and employs physics, engineering, biology, and ecological sciences. [39] Instead of Louis Sullivan’s famous dictum “form follows function” which had been the mantra for much of the modern movement in the twentieth century, Jahn introduced the term “form follows force” which places the emphasis on structure rather than function.

Among his many remarkable projects of recent years in collaboration with Werner Sobek is the enormous Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok of 2006. On six million square feet it contains stores, restaurants, hotels, and meeting rooms, making it almost a city by itself. Textile membranes in its outer structure allow light in, but defray the heat before it reaches the glass surface.

After years with few commissions in Chicago (the last building there was on office building on LaSalle Street in 1992), Jahn returned to his home town in 2003 with a building of particular significance for the arc of his career: a dormitory at his old Alma Mater, the Illinois Institute of Technology, whose campus had been designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In fact, Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece on that campus, Crown Hall stands right across the street. Jahn designed the dormitory with 367 beds in a 550 foot long building along State Street. The metal clad, quietly assertive building references both the adjacent elevated train tracks and the modularity that Mies imposed on the campus. It consists of three interconnected sections with entrances and courtyards between them, and is covered in curved, corrugated steel. It was designed on a tight, $28 million budget and finished in fifteen months. For Jahn (and his project architect John Durbrow) it became a triumphal return to his home town. The critiques were overwhelmingly positive. The Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin declared to be “glad Helmut’s back” and called the dorms “a terrific piece of architecture and urban design.”[40] In 2011, the other local campus with a Mies building (his School of Social Services Administration, 1965), the University of Chicago also received a spectacular Jahn design—the mostly underground Joe and Rika Mansueto Library. Lit by a flat, elliptical glass dome from above, the reading room sits above and next to high-density closed book stacks, in which 3.5 million volumes can be accessed by an automated storage and retrieval system in less than five minutes. The building won a Distinguished Building Award from the American Institute of Architects Chicago Chapter in 2011.

The Veer Towers (2010) at the heart of Las Vegas’ Center City development were built under the design leadership of Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido. These two thirty-seven-story towers are inclined in opposite directions at 85 and 95 degrees. They contain approximately 337 units—studios, one- and two-bedroom residences, and penthouses between 500 and 3,000 ft.2 The reflective glass façade has perforated aluminum framing, fins to help with the energy-efficient climate control, and a checkerboard pattern of sections with yellow ceramic frit encased in the glass, blocking sunlight and providing privacy, while still allowing views outside. While the towers have a prime location in the heart of Las Vegas, the apartments were rather expensive and turned out hard to sell, as they are too close to each other and surrounded by other towers blocking their views. One cannot help but think of Mies van der Rohe’s famous twin towers on Lake Shore Drive, which had a similar height and similar proximity to each other, but offered an arrangement with greater clarity and less ostentation.

Helmut Jahn’s office continues to be busy with major buildings around the globe. According to some critics, he has come full circle: From his Miesian roots to the colorful exuberance of his postmodern projects in the 1980s, he has now found an architectural language that can be read as an evolution of the principles of structural soundness and design restraint that Mies van der Rohe had pronounced during the first half of the twentieth century. Often, in a somewhat mannerist gesture, buildings would extend part of their glass skin beyond the edge of a building to add crispness to its outline or to define and protect a public space. “Flash Gordon, as Jahn-watchers have known for a while now, has grown up,” one critic noticed.[41] Critics agree that while “there are recurrent themes in Jahn’s architecture […] there is no Jahn ‘look,’ nor is it possible to neatly categorize his progression of ideas.”

One of the constants of Jahn’s approach is his emphasis on drawings. Each project is preceded by literally hundreds of his small drawings, always in broad stroked ink and handwritten annotations in his all-capital handwriting. (More than one hundred thousand of Jahn’s drawings have been archived by now.) Diagrams, sections, axonometrics and colored night views follow each other in quick sequence as the main means of communication between him and his staff, who know how to turn these sketches first into models and then into working drawings and finished buildings.


The year 2012, with Jahn turning seventy-two, was a time for introspection and taking stock for him. An enormous exhibition of his work, called “Process Progress” was held at the Neues Museum in his home town of Nuremberg in 2012/2013. On this occasion two major volumes were published, one with an insightful essay by Mies biographer Franz Schulze[42] and a major emphasis on Jahn’s drawings, the other slightly smaller in format and foregrounding his executed projects. It contained a “manifesto” in Jahn’s typical “rather murky prose…”[43] under the title “The Future is never wrong.” Jahn encouraged architects to take risks: “The fear of making a mistake by doing something new is the biggest obstacle down the road to progress in architecture. The future is always right, even when perceived wrong.”[44] Critics noted both the paucity of theoretical framework and the lack of contextual information in the exhibition. Jahn’s work deserves to be compared to that of other commercial modernists, such as Skidmore Owings and Merrill or Kohn Pederson Fox.[45]

In 2012, finally, the firm’s name was changed from Murphy/Jahn to JAHN long after Murphy’s death.[46] At the same time, the seventy-two-year-old principal announced that he would, for the first time, share design responsibility with another architect. The Mexican-born Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido, who had become Jahn’s first partner and vice president for design in 1999, was now made president and co-designer.[47] In reviewing his life’s work, Jahn acknowledged the need to plan for his own future, and that of his office without him.


[1] Interview with Dirk Lohan by the author in Chicago on September 8, 2014.

[2] Both Shaw and Murphy had worked for the firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White where Shaw had been responsible for Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, at its opening in 1930 the largest building in the world.

[3] Paul Gapp, “An early appraisal of Jahn,” Chicago Tribune, December 22, 1986.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Oswald W. Grube, Peter C. Pran and Franz Schulze (eds), 100 Years of Architecture in Chicago: Continuity of Structure and Form: Exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1976). The exhibition had originated in Germany at Munich’s Neue Sammlung and had been enlarged for the Chicago venue.

[7] “The Chicago Seven, plus one, design an ‘exquisite corpse’ to create a row of post-modernist townhouses,”Architectural Record (June 1978): 39.

[8] Oral History of James Lee Nagle, interviewed by Annemarie van Roessel, compiled under the auspices of the Chicago Architects Oral History Project. Ernest R. Graham Study Center for Architectural Drawings, Department of Architecture, Art Institute of Chicago (2000): 83.

[9] Their work had been shown at theMuseum of Modern Artin 1969 and featured in the bookFive Architects, published in 1972 and again in 1975.

[10] Franz Schulze mentioned, but roundly dismissed it in his essay in the catalogue. Franz Schulze, “Chicago Architecture Between the Two World Wars,” in: 100 Years, 41-44.

[11] Stanley Tigerman, Chicago Tribune Tower Competition and Late Entries (New York City: Rizzoli, 1980).

[12] Gapp, “An early appraisal.”

[13] Paul Gapp, “Designs of distinction,” Chicago Tribune, November 3, 1981.

[14] Kamin, “Adding up.”

[15] Charles Waldheim and Katerina Ruedi.Chicago Architecture: Histories, Revisions, Alternatives(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[16] Joseph Giovannini, “Architect puts his mark on skyline,” New York Times, September 8, 1986.

[17] Paul Gapp, “Architecture: Space man Helmut Jahn secures his reputation with Northwestern Center,” Chicago Tribune, August 16, 1987.

[18] Ibid

[19] Blair Kamin, “The Wunderkind at 60: Architect Helmut Jahn, still hard charging, gets ready to unveil his biggest project yet,” Chicago Tribune, June 6, 2000.

[20] Gentleman’s Quarterly (May 1985), cover.

[21] Kamin, “The Wunderkind.”

[22] Paul Gapp, “Jahn and on: Huge book tells everything about the architect” Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1988.

[23] Gapp, “Architecture: Space man.”

[24] Paul Gapp, “Architecture: Jahn’s State of Illinois Center revisited: Strong enough to survive the storm,” Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1986.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Blair Kamin, “Shunned here, Helmut Jahn is out to prove he’s more than flashy,” Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1998. Online at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/chi-helmut-jahn-profile-20140813-story.html (accessed September 11, 2015).

[28] Paul Goldberger, “Futuristic State Office Building Dazzles Chicago,” New York Times, July 22, 1985.

[29] Gapp, “Architecture: Jahn’s State of Illinois Center.”

[30] Ibid.

[31] Hem Gupta, “Jahn lawsuit” Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1987.

[32] Gapp, “Architecture: Jahn’s State of Illinois Center.”

[33] Kamin, “Shunned here.”

[34] Paul Gapp, “Oh, boy! O’Hare!: At United’s terminal, getting there is half the fun” Chicago Tribune, October 4, 1987.

[35] Nory Miller, Helmut Jahn (New York: Rizzoli International, 1986).

[36] Gapp, “An early appraisal.”

[37] Kamin, “Shunned here.”

[38] Kamin, “The Wunderkind.”

[39] Susanne Anna (ed.), Archi-Neering: Helmut Jahn, Werner Sobek (Hatje Cantz, 1999).

[40] Blair Kamin, “Helmut Jahn’s IIT dorm looks elegantly at home”Chicago Tribune, July 27, 2003.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Franz Schulze, “Life and Work: a biographical essay by Franz Schulze,” in: Helmut Jahn Process Progress (Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 2013): n.p.

[43] Gapp, “Jahn and on.”

[44] Helmut Jahn, “The Future is never wrong,” in: Helmut Jahn: Process Progress from Drawings to Buildings (Gingko Press Berkeley, 2012): n.p.

[45] The critic of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung titled her review “The Future is not automatically right.” Ursula Seibold-Bultman, “Die Zukunft hat nicht automatisch recht,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, January 16, 2013.

[46] Melissa Harris, “Name change, new design leadership at Murphy/Jahn,” Chicago Tribune, October 26, 2012.

[47] Chris Bentley, “Protégé rising,” Architect’s Newspaper (October 26, 2012)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Helmut Jahn
  • Coverage 1940-2021
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date April 13, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 11, 2021