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Helmut Jahn Exhibition Opens at Chicago Architecture Center

The influential German architect and pillar of Chicago’s design community is remembered with a retrospective.

By Rachel Gallaher

black and white portrait of Helmut Jahn

Helmut Jahnn. Image by Studio Thies Ibold.

Opening today at Chicago Architecture Center’s Skyscraper Gallery, HELMUT JAHN: LIFE + ARCHITECTURE is a career design retrospective dedicated to the innovative work of German architect Helmut Jahn. The exhibition, which runs through October, was organized after Jahn’s death in May and includes photography, sketches, models, and video content that highlight Jahn’s pathbreaking designs throughout his career. There will also be personal reflections by Helmut’s son, Evan Jahn, as well as notable colleagues, clients, and friends.

“Helmut was deeply and actively involved in the design community, and the Chicago Architecture Center, like other cultural institutions, enjoyed a strong relationship with him,” says exhibition curator Zurich Esposito. “A German immigrant who arrived in the U.S. as a young man, he dedicated his career to the evolution of architecture and modernism. He didn’t rest on the laurels of the past or strive to recreate perfect examples from it. That would bore him, and he certainly thought that should bore others as well. He took modernism in unexpected directions that might impress for qualities like flamboyance and even outrageousness. But his work is not costume architecture; it is grounded in technical precision like that of the best modernists before him.”

exterior photo of Thompson Center in Chicago

Thompson Center in Chicago. Image by Rainer Viertlböck.

Born in Germany in 1940, Jahn studied architecture at the Technical University of Munich and worked with Peter C. von Seidlein for a year after graduation. In 1966 he arrived in Chicago to further study architecture under Myron Goldsmith and Fazlur Khan at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Jahn joined Charles Francis Murphy's architecture firm, C. F. Murphy Associates, in 1967 and took sole control of the practice in 1981, when the firm was renamed Murphy/Jahn (rebranded JAHN in 2012).

His bold style and shift away from the Modernism of Mies van der Rohe earned him late inclusion with the Chicago Seven (a group of postmodern architects looking for new forms in design). A dedication to experimentalism is a thread that runs through his entire career, and many of his buildings were lightning rods for controversy, earning him praise (he was often cited as being ahead of the times) and criticism (the exterior of his beloved Thompson Center project, which opened in Chicago in 1985, was essentially dubbed as ugly by Chicago Tribune critic Paul Gapp).

exterior photo of Michigan City Library at dusk with lights on

Michigan City Library. Image by Rainer Viertlböck.

“Helmut worked outside the formal box of Miesian modernism, experimenting with new and unexpected expressions in modern and contemporary architecture,” Esposito says. “His signature work in Chicago got noticed first with his graceful design for the 1980 Xerox building, a reminder that curves can be beautiful to modernists. Then he caused a much bigger stir with the 1985 James R. Thompson Center, a daring and delightful design for a public building that was unlike anything Chicagoans had ever seen. It was then that Helmut Jahn became a household name and made the pages, and sometimes the covers, of popular magazines, such as GQ and Newsweek. Iconic projects in cities all over the world followed.”

Jahn was killed in a tragic cycling accident in May, but his bravado and spirit will live through his work.

“I hope people will want to know even more about Helmut and his work,” Esposito says of the exhibition. “That they’ll look more closely at his projects that may be in their own cities and think about what those places contribute, for example, to urban life or the advancement of building technology. And [that] they’ll consider the personal characteristics that brought Helmut success, a life and a career, perhaps cut short, but lived to the fullest.”

HELMUT JAHN: LIFE + ARCHITECTURE runs through October 31 at the Chicago Architecture Center.


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