One of Helmut Jahn’s final designs, a military archive and exhibition center, takes shape in Wisconsin

Red Truss Of Courage

One of Helmut Jahn’s final designs, a military archive and exhibition center, takes shape in Wisconsin

Construction underway at the Pritzker Military Archives Center north of Chicago in Kenosha County, Wisconsin. The building, which will house the collections of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, is slated for completion later this year. (Courtesy JAHN)

Almost a year after the untimely death of Helmut Jahn, one of the architect’s final designs is coming to fruition. Jahn’s prolific legacy in Chicago and the surrounding area includes the Thompson Center, Terminal 1 at O’Hare International Airport, and the Mansueto Library at University of Chicago. Building on his penchant for engaging the public through wildly expressive designs, the Pritzker Military Archives Center in Somers, Wisconsin, is a jaunty 48,000-square-foot civic space for archiving and exhibiting military paraphernalia.

The project, located on an almost 300-acre site, is slated to open later this year as part of the larger, multiphase Pritzker Archives & Memorial Park Center (PAMPC) project in Somers. In addition to the forthcoming Pritzker Military Archives Center, another major element of PAMPC is the Cold War Veterans Memorial, a project expected to begin construction in 2024. 

Chicago’s Pritzker Military Museum & Library, the nonprofit institution behind PAMPC, decided it needed a new archival center after receiving an influx of donated military artifacts including books, uniforms, posters, and memorabilia. JAHN, Helmut Jahn’s firm, had another idea. The firm proposed adding an exhibit space to the program that could be accessed by the public. Also included in the program is a central utility core, a processing and sorting facility for organizing donations, and a 15,000-square-foot, temperature-controlled basement archive. Outside, the new building will be flanked by 17 acres of community green space realized in partnership with landscape architecture firm O2 Design.

rendering of an exhibition building with red trusses
The Pritzker Military Archives Center will be flanked by 17 acres of public green space on the 288-acre PAMPC campus. (Courtesy JAHN)

In designing the building, JAHN drew on the aesthetics of military hardware. “When Helmut and I talked about it he said, ‘This building needs to be tough. It needs to be like a piece of military equipment,’” explained JAHN managing director Phil Castillo. The overall form is inspired by an amphibious assault vehicle’s aggressive stance. Burly trusses bolt to the foundation and, at one end, taper into an 80-foot cantilever that covers a plaza fronting the main public entrance. The trusses are painted red, the color of courage, and their assemblage, the literal nuts and bolts, are left exposed. The 42-foot-tall exhibition space is enclosed in a glass curtain walls.

JAHN’s focus on the technical aspects of the design is not only expressive. As with military equipment, the building also had to perform well. The curtain wall glass features a ceramic frit in a grid pattern that mitigates the influx of sunlight, reducing heat loading as well as glare so visitors remain comfortable and the artifacts stay safe and viewable. The archival basement is served by a robust HVAC system that maintains rigorous temperature and humidity thresholds to keep the artifacts preserved. This emphasis on performance without sacrificing aesthetic is not new to JAHN: the Mansueto Library on University of Chicago’s campus also houses sensitive documents under a glass dome.

construction photo a swooping building with red trusses
(Courtesy JAHN)

Before his death, Helmut Jahn specialized in designing highly distinctive postmodern architecture in the Midwest and abroad. If the Pritzker Military Archives Center is any indication, JAHN will continue this legacy of synthesizing the technical and the cultural even as the practice starts a new chapter without its namesake.