The Chicago Architecture Center announces a special exhibition saluting Helmut Jahn

A Legacy, Observed

The Chicago Architecture Center announces a special exhibition saluting Helmut Jahn

Helmut Jahn (Studio Thies Ibold/Courtesy CAC)

The Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) has announced a new exhibition entitled Helmut Jahn: Life + Architecture will open at the center’s Drake Family Skyscraper Gallery on July 23 and remain on view through October.

Organized in the weeks following Jahn’s sudden passing in May, the design retrospective will recognize the indelible impact that the visionary architect had on his adopted home of Chicago, his native Germany, and beyond. In addition to personal and professional effects on loan from Jahn’s family and his eponymous Chicago firm, the exhibition will feature a number of scale building models. The models will include both career-defining designs such as the imperiled James R. Thompson Center (Chicago, 1985) and Sony Center (Berlin, 2000), along with more recent, under-construction projects such as 1000M, a residential supertall tower in Chicago that was recently approved to resume construction after work was halted during the pandemic, and the Pritzker Military Archives in Somers, Wisconsin.

exhibition branding
(Courtesy CAC)

“Helmut Jahn and Chicago were made for one another,” said Lynn Osmond, president and CEO of CAC, in a news release. “Helmut’s larger-than-life persona and his inventive and surprisingly original buildings remade Chicago in the 1980s. His brash designs and relentless pursuit of excellence invigorated Chicago, helping the architectural community move confidently beyond mid-century modernism. Helmut was, in turn, embraced by ‘the city of big shoulders.’”

Born in the small Bavarian town of Zirndorf, Jahn settled in Chicago in the late 1960s and, in 1983, was named president and CEO of the architectural practice Murphy/Jahn (later JAHN). On May 8, he was killed while riding his bicycle near his home in the far western Chicago suburb of Campton Hills. He was 81.

Just days before his death, the State of Illinois formally put the Thompson Center, an exuberant structure that’s arguably the unfailingly ahead of his time architect’s most well-known Chicago work, up for sale. Later in May, Chicago City Council approved a zoning change that could see Jahn’s so-called “postmodern people’s palace,” which sits on a prime 3-acre piece of Loop real estate, potentially razed and replaced by a superlatively lanky skyscraper. While plans to offload the Thompson Center, which was built as a satellite state capital complex, have been a long time coming, these two major events bookending Jahn’s passing kicked off a fierce battle to save the spaceship-y 17-story building and adapt it for other uses.

exterior view of a futuristic glass building in a city
The James R. Thompson Center (Rainer Viertlbock/Courtesy CAC)

A small but significant victory in the effort to save the Thompson Center came late last month when the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council approved the beloved building’s proposed nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. As detailed by the Chicago Tribune, the move is a key step in sending the nomination to the National Park Service for formal consideration. If approved, the Thompson Center would be eligible for historic tax credits incentivizing adaptive reuse. Both the Illinois Department of Central Management Services and the State Historic Preservation Office objected to the nomination.

“With a burst of shattering, curving and bulging glass in a rainbow of colors, Helmut Jahn danced on to the international architecture scene in the 1980s, translating the discipline of Chicago Modernism into new programs and forms while melting and fragmenting its grids into a post-disco delight of shaped buildings,” said Aaron Betsky, Director of the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech, in a statement. “We better save the Thompson Center, which is not only one of his greatest designs, but one of the few true celebrations of government as a public good.”

a futuristic, multicolored airport terminal
United Airlines Terminal 1 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport (Rainer Viertlbock/Courtesy CAC)

In mid-June, CAC and the Chicago Architectural Club joined forces to launch a 2021 edition of the latter organization’s annual Chicago Prize Competition seeking restorative architecture-focused design proposals for the Thompson Center. In February of last year, Jahn himself released a ten-page reuse plan that envisioned a reborn Thompson Center populated by tech offices, a hotel, and co-living apartments equipped with lushly landscaped terraces. Most dramatically, the plan called for removing the building’s front doors and transforming its photogenic atrium into a sheltered outdoor space.

“Governor Pritzker has the opportunity, after years of neglect by his predecessors, to lead thru the sale of the Thompson Center by giving it new life,” said Jahn. “Repurposing the building the right way could go beyond what the building ever was, making it better, more public, and a place where you want to work, stay overnight, live or just visit and feel good. Miracles and dreams can become real.”

a glass-sheathed triangular structure
Michigan City Library in Michigan City, Indiana. (Rainer Viertlbock/Courtesy CAC)

Shortly after the launch of the 2021 Chicago Prize Competition, CAC and the Chicago Architectural Club revealed the competition jury: Carol Ross Barney (founder and design principal of Ross Barney Architects), Michelle T. Boone (president of The Poetry Foundation), Philip Castillo (executive vice President, JAHN), Peter D. Cook (design principal at HGA Architects & Engineers and newly appointed member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts), Mikyoung Kim (founding principal of Mikyoung Kim Design), and Bonnie McDonald (president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois).

English designer Thomas Heatherwick was subsequently added to the jury, a move that, per CAC, “underlines the global design community’s interest in the Thompson Center as a significant building in a city known for a rare collection of groundbreaking architecture.”

Joining the forthcoming Helmut Jahn: Life + Architecture, current exhibits at CAC include Housing for a Changing Nation, Hyper Green High Rises: Towards a Zero-Energy Skyscraper, From Me to We: Imagining the City of 2050, the always crowd-pleasing Chicago City Model Experience, and more.