Helmut Jahn (1940-2021)


Renowned architect Helmut Jahn, designer of some of the most remarkable buildings in Chicago and other cities around the world, died on May 8 in a tragic bicycle accident. He was 81.

To remember him and his work in Chicago, we asked a selection of people to contribute their thoughts on him or his work.


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Images from Tom Rossiter’s video on Helmut Jahn.

The current list of contributors includes:

Lynn Becker, Writer on Architecture, Culture, and Chicago
Stuart Cohen, FAIA, Principal, Cohen & Hacker Architects
Rachel Cole, Reference Librarian, Northwestern University’s Transportation Library
Nathan Eddy, Director and Producer
Peter Exley, FAIA, Co-founder, Architecture is Fun and 2021 AIA President
Iker Gil, Founder, MAS Studio and MAS Context
Francisco Gonzalez Pulido, Principal, FGP Atelier
Tom Harris, Architectural Photographer
Tom Lee, AIA, Principal, Eastman Lee Architects
Margaret McCurry, FAIA, Principal, Tigerman McCurry Architects
Bonnie McDonald, President & CEO, Landmarks Illinois
Tom Rossiter, FAIA, Photographer
Zoë Ryan, Daniel W. Dietrich, II Director, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania
Rick Valicenti, Designer, Producer, Director, and Collaborator

Lynn Becker
Drifter/ Writer on Architecture, Culture, and Chicago

A building, if it only fulfills its program, is not necessarily a good building . . . certain buildings, they can make a statement beyond what their actual necessities are.

That is what Helmut Jahn told me. It was our first and only meeting, and it was over a decade and a half ago, but as I walk by his office in the incongruously ornate Jewelers Building, a feeling of something gone missing sinks the pit of my stomach.

Helmut Jahn died—suddenly and shockingly—in a biking accident, his life long ago had become an amalgam of myth and reality, his face gazing out from the cover of GQ in 1985, the same year his “Spaceship Chicago,” the now-named James R. Thompson Center created an uproar in the staid post-Miesian world of Chicago architecture. Fashion plate. Jetsetter. Enfant terrible of architectural design. In his hometown, it was a curse more than a blessing. He wouldn’t be allowed to build within city limits for almost two decades.

Jahn was lumped in with all the architects who had embraced Postmodernism, but the association was most often superficial. While other Postmodern architects slathered their designs with classical pediments and columns as a kind of insider’s in-joke, every Jahn building—including the Thompson—was the result of deep and creative consideration.

If you can get back into the Thompson Center, I recommend you go to the washroom. Because in the corridor leading to those lower-level washrooms, there’s a remarkable testimony—now a memorial—to Jahn. The red walls are covered with Jahn’s drawings for the Thompson Center.

Jahn began his design in a city which had no grand civic interior. City Hall and the County Building offer only crisscrossed, block-long corridors. “This is the people’s palace—grab an elevator or move along!” The civic qualities of Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Center lie in its grouping and public plazas. The two-story courtrooms are concealed behind the classic Mies I-beam façades. On their exteriors, the Dirksen Courthouse building and Kluczynski office building are visually indistinguishable.

Before, on the Federal Center site, there had been Henry Ives Cobb’s monumental US Courthouse, with a central atrium beneath a great central dome. Both the Daley and Federal Centers today offer outdoor plazas, but nowhere is there an interior civic nexus that evokes the spirit of Democracy.

“I can’t think without drawing,” Jahn had told me, and on those basement walls you can experience his thinking evolving. An early concept for the building took up an entire block, bisected by block-long corridors meeting in a central space under a small dome, a cross between the Crystal Palace and a shopping mall.

Jahn’s final design, however, created that civic nexus re-imagined in an exhilarating, contemporary context. Yes, there’s a public plaza, but it wraps around an enormous curving sweep of glass. Inside, offices ring a stunning, spacious atrium that rises the building’s full seventeen stories, with an exposed elevator bank rising like a spine to Jahn’s magnificent steel-and-glass dome, sliced on the bias to fill the atrium with light. Of course, it’s imperfect—messy, noisy, even smelly (there’s a food court on the lower level), but it’s alive with energy. It says to its citizens, “This government is yours, open and transparent.”

Of course, the State of Illinois can’t wait to be rid of it, to retreat back behind faceless, indistinguishable office buildings. “This is your government: just another huge corporation closeted behind generic facades. Just try to find us.”

Jahn’s career and reputation flowered beyond Chicago’s borders. When he eventually was allowed to return to the city, to Mies’s IIT campus on the South Side, his Thompson Center rep still dogging him, he had to first convince both client and contractor that his design could be built within the budget. A key question was how to deal with the Green Line L running past the site. Rem Koolhaas, for his McCormick Tribune Student Center, hid the tracks away in a massive tunnel. Jahn used specially engineered glass to make it an essential part of the experience of the building.

Jahn created the State Street Village dorms as a contemporary rethinking of the courtyard apartment building that’s a Chicago staple. He saw it as a model that could pop up all across the city, and that would have been marvelous, but as we are generally idiots in thrall to our laziest prejudices, it never happened.

When Mies spoke of architecture as being “the will of the epoch translated into space,” I doubt he was thinking of the endless new construction dreck too often lining our streets. Replace “will” with “best aspirations” and I think you get the idea. Mies had it. Jahn was the epitome of it. He is irreplaceable.

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Helmut Jahns office, Chicago. © Lynn Becker.

Stuart Cohen, FAIA
Cohen & Hacker Architects

I knew Helmut from the mid-seventies on, but never knew him well. I didn’t keep in touch with him over the years since our Chicago Seven Architects days but ran into him from time to time. Helmut was the only one I’ve ever known who genuinely believed that “form follows function” was a universal truth rather than an aesthetic choice. I can honestly say that Stanley Tigerman and I were the worst things that ever happened to Helmut’s architecture. His adaptation of “Postmodernism as a Style” rather than a set of ideas didn’t produce, in my opinion, his best work. Helmut was a truly talented designer. His later work gave elegant and consummate expression to its means of construction and structure. Excluding his early Chicago work, he leaves a body of work on a par with that of Richard Rogers.

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From left to right: Helmut Jahn, Tom Beeby, Stanley Tigerman, and Stuart Cohen, Chicago Seven Townhouse Competition, c. 1978. © Courtesy Tigerman McCurry Architects.

Rachel Cole
Northwestern University’s Transportation Library

Known at its opening as the “Terminal for Tomorrow,” Helmut Jahn’s Terminal 1 at O’Hare International Airport was built decades after the golden age of air travel, at a time when most new airports were not designed as “grand public spaces,” as Jahn stated his intention with the project. Jahn’s work at O’Hare looks to the future, while also referencing the past, capturing the spirit of jet age architecture which suggested the experience of streamlined movement and global interconnectedness.

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United Airlines Terminal Concept Sketches. From Jahn, Helmut, and Werner Blaser, Airports (Basel: Birkhäuser, 1991).

The jet age was ushered in with the introduction of the Boeing 707 in 1958. That same year, Frank Sinatra released “Come Fly with Me,” in which the feeling of flight is characterized as drifting weightlessly, dreamily, through the air– “Come fly with me / Let’s float down to Peru … Once I get you up there / Where the air is rarified / We’ll just glide / Starry-eyed. . ..”

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System Timetable, 1958. Pan American World Airways. George M. Foster Timetable Collection.

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System Timetable, 1958. Pan American World Airways. George M. Foster Timetable Collection.

It was also in 1958 that the first International terminal at O’Hare International Airport opened, and it was with the jet age that the airport grew, with the firm of Naess & Murphy (and later, C.F. Murphy Associates) responsible for the airport’s architecture and engineering during this period.

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Chicago O’Hare International Airport Engineering Report: First Stage Development Program. Naess & Murphy, 1958.

O’Hare became the world’s busiest airport in 1962. To accommodate growing passenger and air cargo traffic, another major development program was necessary, and Murphy/Jahn was named the official architect of the O’Hare Development Program in 1982.

The glass-and-steel barrel vaulted ceilings of the United Terminal recall the spectacle of an early rail station, with its hazy light hanging over the energy and movement of arrivals and departures.

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Aviation Week & Space Technology. November 9, 1987.

Connecting Concourses B and C is an 800-foot underground tunnel that carries travelers on a moving walkway, immersing them in a show of neon light and music as they cross the liminal space between departure and arrival.

The City of Chicago had been discussing a rail connection from Chicago’s Loop to O’Hare since at least 1968. This goal was finally realized in 1984, with the opening of the O’Hare Rapid Transit Station, designed by Jahn.

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United Airlines Pedestrian Tunnel Connection. From Jahn, Helmut, and Werner Blaser, Airports (Basel: Birkhäuser, 1991).

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Chicago Transit Authority Poster, 1984. Neil Ferrari Collection.

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Insert from The RTA System Map: Chicago Metropolitan Area, 1985.


All materials are from the collections of Northwestern University’s Transportation Library. Reports and planning documents are from the Chicago O’Hare International Airport Digital Collection of studies, plans, and other information covering the operations of O’Hare International Airport and its transit connections to the region.

Nathan Eddy
Director and Producer

A handful of emails. A 90-minute filmed interview. A brief office meeting. An epic lunch. A surprise appearance.

And then gone.

My personal moments in Helmut’s company were few. Our relationship, however, was preceded by the boisterous cosmos of Helmut’s imagination, indelibly seared into my design consciousness. The dazzling monographs and magazine spreads I collected as a teenager, the glittering, slick skinned retro-future towers I spied on in New York and Philadelphia.

The joy of starting university in Chicago, obsessing over its architecture at the time of Helmut’s hometown comeback: The HA-LO HQ in Niles, the long, low, steel grey dormitories at IIT, the precision tooled, curved corner high-rise at 600 N. Fairbanks. Less acid-trip Gattaca than my personal JAHN favorites in the Loop, perhaps, but thrilling to see Helmut’s audacious 40-year design trajectory vaulting across the city landscape.

Then in 2016 came my documentary on the Thompson Center, and along with it my chance to reach out to Helmut. Not (just) as some nerdy archi-fanboy, but because I needed his help.

And he helped me.

He helped me by agreeing to an interview in the film. He helped me build confidence in myself through his generosity of time and of spirit. He helped me by supporting the project personally during the shoot and long after. He lent me his support during the battle to preserve the AT&T Building in New York. He looked super cool doing it all.

Thank you, Helmut, for your brilliant, OUTRIGHT SPECTACULAR approach to architecture. Thank you for marinating Chicago in your madcap Gesamtkunstwerk of glamour, panache, and color.

“It’s very hard to make a statement that goes beyond the ordinary,” you said to me once. Thank you for breaking the boundaries.

On behalf those who seek in architecture the outer limits of delight, exuberance, and emotion, thank you for the Thompson Center.

Thank you for coming to the Chicago Architecture Biennial’s screening of Starship Chicago. You sat quietly, in the back, all in black, the audience gradually becoming aware the architect was present. A little ripple through the crowd—“Helmut’s here!”

Thank you for our lunch at ikram café and the opportunity to show you the storyboards for the film about your life. I told you, “I think you’re underappreciated, Helmut, and someone should make a movie about you!” To which you replied, “I do, too!”

Mein lieber Helmut, ich danke Ihnen, GANZ HERZLICH, für alles.

Peter Exley, FAIA
Architecture is Fun

William “Holly” Whyte’s treatise on the social life of small urban space is an optimistic celebration of public space that ushered in the 1980s. However, it hardly anticipated the cascade of exuberance and inclusivity marked by the atrium of the James R. Thompson Center. Downtown public space would never be the same again. Chicago, Philadelphia, Berlin, Tokyo, et al are each the better for Helmut Jahn’s commitment to public place. There’s not a public space anywhere since that doesn’t owe some debt of gratitude to the attitude and civitas of the Thompson Center and the aspiration embodied in Whyte’s writing and filmmaking. Helmut just turned it up to eleven.

Almost in that same moment it was impossible to envision aviation typologies as anything more than utilitarian; now, in a post United Terminal era, it is impossible to imagine them as anything but. There’s not an airport anywhere (or future spaceport) that doesn’t make some nod to Helmut’s technically pristine, exhilarating homage to flight. Extraordinary careers have risen on his cape-tails—the imitators and followers of the United Terminal are too numerous to count.

The theme of invention is ever-present in Helmut’s work. Not content with the ordinary, his credo of standing firm to deliver the extraordinary is omnipotent. It is our duty to Helmut’s legacy and memory to be catalysts for equity and inclusion in our downtown public spaces, and in every neighborhood, wherever architects work. It is our responsibility to leverage our training and our technologies to emphasize action on climate crisis in our work. As Helmut has shown us, architects are uniquely positioned to do something good. Something that makes people safer, healthier, and happier. Architects are uniquely positioned to create places and spaces that privilege no one and everyone at the same time.

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United Terminal sketch. © Peter Exley.

Iker Gil
MAS Studio and MAS Context

My only direct professional encounter with Helmut Jahn took place a decade ago. At the time, I was the organizer of an architecture and urban design program at the Instituto Cervantes of Chicago. In the third edition of the series that took place in the Fall of 2011, we brought the exhibition European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture–Mies van der Rohe Award 2011. Helmut Jahn gave the lecture to close the exhibition. His work was remarkable, his drawings superb. His drive and love for architecture evident to all.

While by that time I knew his work, in the decade after I became more interested and familiar with it, especially the civic and public projects. Driving around the south end of Lake Michigan means visiting a small but memorable building such as the Michigan City Library, one of his early works. The square building with saw-tooth roof, translucent fiberglass walls, green ductwork, and intimate courtyard is a treat to experience. Seeing his submission to the 1987 Chicago Public Library architectural competition at a MAS Context event at the Art Institute’s Ryerson & Burnham Libraries made me wonder what we could have experienced had he won the commission in that final round. Riding the CTA to O’Hare Airport means walking through his train station before leaving the city. Within the airport itself, a dynamic, colorful, and undulating pedestrian tunnel, with its own music, makes the two-minute connection between concourses an experience that everybody seems to love and wants to photograph. But entering the atrium of the Thompson Center for no special reason or to show it to those visiting the city for the first time is probably my fondest memory of his work. This building elevates the most mundane activities such as eating in a food court, going to the DMV, or walking to the train station. A celebration of civic life with pastel colors, abundant light, and dazzling reflections. What else can you ask for?

His work is complex, unexpected, perhaps uneven, but remarkable. It does not fit the constantly repeated narratives about architecture in Chicago but Helmut’s contribution to Chicago is undeniable and something to protect and celebrate.

Francisco Gonzalez Pulido
FGP Atelier

On May 8, 2021, my longtime mentor, partner, and friend, Helmut Jahn passed away. Five days later, I am writing these lines about a relationship that will forever be like no other.

Our professional exchange began in the fall of 1999. However, the remarkable Thompson Center was in the “architectural drawers” of my memory since the late 80s while I was finishing my studies in architecture in Mexico. Our work relationship evolved rapidly and drastically in a short period of time and it lasted up to Helmut’s passing. We had a 4-hour lunch in January of this year and we planned to get together this summer for a recap. I will never forget the day of my departure from JAHN. It was Thursday, August 31, 2017 after eighteen remarkable years together to the day. I remember in particular what he said on his farewell speech: “Francisco, we have been partners and, from now on, we might be competing for the same projects!” I always loved that about him, he was fearless to express his mind and extremely competitive.

During the first six years, I worked for him; the six years that followed we worked together; and in the last six years, we became design and business partners and our collaboration evolved and solidified. It was always poised with intensity. We could be completely aligned and also have contrasting opinions about how to get there. But we always knew what the objective was because we believed in the same things. If it worked, it was extraordinary. That was our secret symmetry and ultimately what defined the nature of our collaboration.

It is difficult to define him in words, but I will try to give some images: Helmut had more energy, drive, determination, ideas, speed, order, hand-sketches, built projects, true friends, pens, intellect, impatience, rage, intolerance to small talk, confidence, freedom, obsession to solve problems, ability to simplify, flamboyance, ground and wings than anybody I have ever met.

We traveled, designed, lunched, laughed, and worked together tirelessly. Our relationship was complex, of contrast, affection, and opposition at times, but of admiration and respect. I became an architect by his side and learned, among many other things, what work ethic really means and why compromising ruins everything.

Helmut will always be a comet on a magnificent journey across the universe that will forever shine on us, the ones who had the privilege of a moment in his unparalleled company.

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Helmut Jahn and Francisco Gonzalez Pulido.

Tom Harris
Architectural Photographer

While JAHN is one of the few Chicago firms I haven’t had the chance to collaborate with, I have been a longtime admirer of their work. I took frequent trips to the University of Chicago early in my career to build my portfolio at the feet of Helmut Jahn’s buildings. I fondly remember him telling his life’s story at AIA Chicago Designight a few years ago. It was fun to hear stories from my colleagues about their interactions with him as well. A loss for Chicago, and indeed the world.

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University of Chicago south campus chiller plant. © Tom Harris.

Tom Lee, AIA
Eastman Lee Architects

In 1993, I was thirteen years old and curious about a career in architecture. I wrote a letter to Helmut asking for advice, fully aware that it was the equivalent of a message in a bottle thrown out to sea. Surprisingly, he sent me two A+U monographs on his work in return. Discovering that such publications and architectural sketches, models, and his expressive analytiques even existed opened up a whole new world to me.

Two years later, I wrote him another letter asking for an internship. I’d end up spending most summers at Murphy/Jahn from when I was fifteen until I was twenty-four. I didn’t interact much with Helmut during my first internship though on my last day I found a signed drafting triangle on my desk from him; I’ve never taken it out of its plastic.

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Signed drafting triangle. © TomLee.

Our first interaction came during my second internship. I was encouraged to bring in some of my work from my high school architecture class. One afternoon I came back to my desk to find Helmut flipping through my drawings. As I stood there trying to decide whether to run or cry, he looked up at me with a smile and said, “I like your sketches… a lot more than I like your building [design].” I was elated.

Two weeks later, Sam Scaccia, who surely orchestrated much of what I am writing here, came to me and said, “Helmut has your next assignment. Don’t blow it.” Eventually, over the next few internships, I worked on several models and other projects for Helmut, and I always looked forward to the one-on-one time. One night he told me I was working too much and that playing softball that night was more important–especially since Murphy/Jahn was playing Dirk Lohan’s office and we couldn’t lose. He was surprisingly funny and caring in many ways.

His public persona and reputation veil how I remember him. Indeed, he demanded only the best from everyone. I learned from an early age what “tough love” meant: I was sixteen when he first scolded me. He forgave my most egregious errors but pounced on the careless ones because I should have known better.

If I could write him one last letter, for once I wouldn’t be asking him for anything, but to thank him for his quiet guidance and generosity because of the profound influence it’s had on my life. I’m eternally grateful.

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Magazines on Helmut Jahn. © Tom Lee.

Margaret McCurry
Tigerman McCurry Architects

When Stanley died two springs ago, Helmut and Deborah messengered this moving tribute to the enduring friendship we shared as devotees to the ideals of our professions. They also included these pictures that reveal special moments recorded during those halcyon early years. Stanley and Helmut shared a passionate commitment to and respect for the art of architecture but in their plan for achieving it they were polar opposites.

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Tribute by Helmut Jahn and Deborah Ann Lampe. Courtesy of Margaret McCurry.

Here Stanley teases Helmut reminding Captain Video that he needs to take a Great Books Course as theory was not his modus operandi. But at the same time, the two shared a love of hand drawing as a way of delineating their inventive ideas. Helmut was always artistically problem solving while Stanley created colorful ideological cartoons.

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Helmut Jahn and Stanley Tigerman. Courtesy of Margaret McCurry.

On this social occasion Stanley regals Deborah with one of his favorite monikers for Helmut that of Baron von High Tech.

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Deborah Ann Lampe, Helmut Jahn, and Stanley Tigerman. Courtesy of Margaret McCurry.

Helmut and Deborah eloped on New Year’s Eve, so the couple often invited friends to help celebrate significant year end anniversaries.

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Jim, Helmut Jahn, and Stanley Tigerman. Courtesy of Margaret McCurry.

The last time Helmut and Deborah and I were together we attended the opening of Volume Gallery’s exhibition of Stanley’s last pen and ink drawings just prior to his fall memorial at the Art Institute. We shared memories at the celebratory dinner of our enduring friendship and the importance of drawing, [amusingly in Helmut’s case versus reading] and promised to stay in touch.

Covid cancelled a celebration of Helmut’s 80th birthday, but this spring was to bring new possibilities until May became the cruelest month cutting short a vibrant life that had mellowed over the years becoming no less passionate about the profession but more committed to the quality of life for those who would inhabit his buildings and more philosophical about the future. Stanley would have been one of the first called by the press to offer comments on Helmut’s passing and he would have echoed my sentiments that we will sorely miss our baron and that the city has lost another one of its stars falling too soon out of its orbit.

Bonnie McDonald
Landmarks Illinois

An observatory bathed in sunshine where one could simultaneously contemplate the city’s expanse and its remaking. My first meeting with Helmut Jahn was in this memorable setting. In the spring of 2017, Lisa DiChiera, my colleague and advocacy director at Landmarks Illinois, and I were invited to discuss the Thompson Center’s future with Helmut and JAHN’s EVP Philip Castillo. The James R. Thompson Center, Helmut’s 1985 public building for the State of Illinois in Chicago’s Loop, was about to be included on our Most Endangered Historic Places list. Where I expected a short conference-room strategy session, we were treated to an elegant lunch with expansive conversation over espresso at the top of the Jeweler’s Building, Helmut’s Chicago office. Why do these details even matter in such a tribute? Because details mattered to Helmut. His legacy will be defined by how he created environments to encourage dialogue and spaces for the public unlike any other.

I cannot, and would not, pose that I knew Helmut Jahn well at all. To work periodically with someone for only four years does not make an expert. But I certainly observed along the way. He defied what I expected based on his celebrity. I found Helmut soft spoken, at least in our conversations. This surprised me considering his reputation for self-assuredness. But, one needn’t be loud to be charismatic, which he was, nor to radiate conviction and confidence, which he did.

He was forthright and persistent with his vision. We were on the opposite side of Helmut’s supertall tower proposal for Chicago’s South Loop in 2015. Being contrary to his vision was no admirable place to be. I recall an almost quizzical reaction from Helmut when we questioned the tower’s 86-story scale adjacent to Michigan Avenue’s historic street wall. This didn’t mean Helmut refused to listen–quite the contrary. He was open to ideas and was responsive. But I felt contrary arguments had to not only be logical, but downright flawless to dent such unbridled vision.

That lack of restraint led Helmut to design some of the world’s most memorable spaces—big and bold and unapologetic. What could have been mundane public places became awe inspiring. His mastery of scale and proportion created sweeping vistas making us feel within and outside all at once, yet not insignificant or small. These places were designed for people to not only be inspired, but provoked. Now it is in our hands to save the work of our provocateur. The effort will be challenging, as it is with anything unconventional and that makes our cities distinctive and heterogeneous. But let’s be unapologetic that it’s worth the fight beyond far more interesting reasons than legacy. Saving and reusing Helmut Jahn’s work is about respecting and preserving our environment, as these materials already taken from the Earth still have viable life. It is our mandate to consider reuse first. Beyond that, these are places for the people and they should continue to serve as such long into the future. That will certainly be a tribute to the designer.

Tom Rossiter, FAIA

Helmut was a driven man with an inexhaustible appetite for work/architecture/drawing.

In 2011 I had photographed the Mansueto Library based on direction from an associate of Helmut’s. When Helmut returned from Germany, he saw my photos and called me, “Hello Tom, this is Helmut. I hate your photos of the Mansueto Library.” I listened, chuckled a bit, and heard what he was saying and asked him to meet me at the library that afternoon. I got off the ladder I was on in Millennium Park setting a timelapse camera and hustled to my studio to pick up my gear and my assistant. Helmut walked me through the Mansueto and there were two photos he really wanted, that were very good, and I shot them that evening. In that process we developed a mutual respect and friendship.

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Helmut Jahn and Tom Rossiter, Joe + Rika Mansueto Library, Chicago, 2011. © Tom Rossiter.

In 2013 when the Art Institute of Chicago was going to honor Helmut at The Modern Ball, they asked me if I would make a video to honor him at the Gala. I agreed to do this using photographs and video that had already been shot by Rainer Veirtlboch and myself. Helmut and Deborah Jahn provided a lot of personal and professional photos. Helmut invited me to lunch to ask to see the video and I told Helmut he would see it at the Gala when everyone else did. Fortunately, he was touched by the video and was very complimentary but anyone knowing Helmut knows it could have gone another way.

I began a series of great buildings of the world called “Architecture Revealed” based on the drawings from the Ecole de Beaux Arts called analytiques. I believed Mansueto was a really fine building and decided to cut it open to expose the reading room, the automatic storage and retrieval system, and the exterior in context with Regenstein Library. Helmut loved it, saying that, for the first time, you could understand the project in a single image. He printed it at 8.5 feet high by 14 feet long in his lobby.

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Helmut Jahn in his office. © Tom Rossiter.

This led to Helmut asking me to make a piece of art for an office building he was just completing in Washington DC. He asked if there was a building I would like to cut open in DC and I said, “Yes, The US Capitol.” He convinced the developer Quadrangle Development to commission the piece for the building, which is particularly relevant now in light of the January 6 insurrection.

I am indebted to Helmut; I will miss him, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have learned many things from him and to have worked closely with him. I send my deepest condolences to Deborah and Evan for their enormous loss.

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Joe + Rika Mansueto Library Reading Room, Chicago, 2011. © Tom Rossiter.

Zoë Ryan
Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

I got to know Helmut Jahn while I was a curator and then Chair of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago. We shared a passion for design and a love of sailing. I remain an amateur, while Helmut reveled in telling me about daredevil competitions that took him around the world. He was a fixture in the world of architecture and design in Chicago. Known as much for his architecture as his sports car, easily spotted on the streets for its vivid shade of green. Helmut’s signature architecture and a penchant for stubborn silhouettes shaped my own experiences of living in Chicago and arrivals and departures from the United Terminal at O’Hare. I was fascinated to come across the illustrations for this project in the collection of the Art Institute, made while he was in partnership with Charles Murphy, and delineated by Rael Slutsky in 1985. I also have vivid memories of getting my first US driver’s license at the Thompson Center, opened that same year. In 2014, it was a privilege to honor Helmut and longtime architecture patron David Hilliard at the Architecture and Design Department’s Modern Ball. Having moved to Philadelphia recently, I am once again in a city whose skyline is distinguished by a Helmut design, the silvery grey, Art Deco-inspired tower One Liberty Place. It still takes its place at center stage, even though it is no longer the tallest building. Uncompromising in every way, Helmut’s legacy will be equally so.

Rick Valicenti
Designer, Producer, Director, and Collaborator

The University of Chicago contacted our studio, Thirst, shortly after the doors opened for Helmut Jahn’s Joe and Rika Mansueto domed library.

The typography ringing the edge of the glass dome had been specified incorrectly or the specification was interpreted incorrectly. Either way, what resulted were some humongous stainless steel letters pin mounted directly into the concrete.

According to the University of Chicago, our job was to re-specify a properly scaled typography and make certain that Helmut was completely satisfied. Photographic simulations had been approved and, on this one particular morning, it was time to meet on site with an actual size print out scroll taped in place so that he could approve the orientation.

For me the placement was obvious—simply orient it on center axis with the egg-shaped dome. Helmut instead was immediately firm in his insistence that this single line of all capital letters be moved dramatically to the right to be an indicator directing pedestrians as to where to enter the building. In that moment his logic seemed completely illogical to me… until it was installed.

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Joe + Rika Mansueto Library, Chicago. © Rick Valicenti.

That was my only personal encounter with the master, for up until then all of my experiences with his local architecture had been physical and without a docent. Needless to say, I have two favorites among the many: the United underground moving walkway at O’Hare and the atrium within the Thompson Center shortly after it opened. Both breathtakingly brilliant.

I must admit, however, to secretly loving his more sublime modest-scaled modernism for the Michigan City Public Library in Indiana.

Knowing he once walked among us is both comforting and humbling.

Suggested readings

Official website.

Helmut Jahn,” Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present.

Donna Robertson and Hamza Walker, “Oral history of Helmut Jahn,” Compiled under the auspices of the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Artworks by Murphy/Jahn Architects, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Blair Kamin, “The Wunderkind at 60,” Chicago Tribune, June 6, 2000.

Hamza Walker, “Architecture,” Renaissance Society, 1999.

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

F. Philip Barash, “State v. Jahn: The Thompson Center is dead, long live the Thompson Center,” Newcity, May 4, 2021.

Lee Bey, “Save the Thompson Center,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 10, 2021.

Elizabeth Blasius and Jonathan Solomon, “The Thompson Center, a blend of patriotism and Postmodernism, should be a Chicago landmark,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 14, 2021.

Lecture by Elizabeth Blasius on the Thompson Center, MAS Context : Analog, Chicago, 2017.

National Register of Historic Places Registration Form – Thompson Center, 2021.

Jonathan Solomon, “Helmut Jahn’s James R. Thompson Center and the Aesthetics of Postmodern Citizenship,” Avery Review, November 19, 2016.

Marianela D’Aprile, “Chicago’s Thompson Center is a Palace for the People,” Jacobin, June 2, 2021.

Preservation Chicago’s effort to Save the Thompson Center.

Selected photographs of projects in Chicago