Blair Kamin’s Tribute to Helmut Jahn
As the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic for nearly 30 years. I got to know Helmut Jahn and his work from a unique perspective, one that was both global and local. I reviewed his buildings on three continents: Europe, North America, and Asia. And I observed him at close range, not only in his office at the Jewelers Building at 35 E. Wacker, but also in the cupola of that eclectic 1920s tower. There, in that reputed former speakeasy, we would have lunch, trade observations, and, sometimes, sparks would fly between architect and critic. Which is a polite way of saying that Helmut occasionally would use these lunches as a chance to vigorously rebut any criticism I’d leveled at him and his work.
Despite these face-to-face debates, or perhaps because of them, I always looked forward to seeing Helmut. He was, as we say in the journalism trade, great copy. Never boring. Always ready to speak his mind. Once, after informing me that I’d been way too easy on a new Chicago skyscraper, he said: “Blair, you will make me a better architect and I will make you a better critic.” That stung. But his core idea—that frank exchanges would sharpen eyes and minds—had the ring of truth.
Our interactions typically began when I dialed the office phone number, 427-7300, to schedule an interview. It’s one of the few firm numbers I still know by heart. On the appointed day, I’d walk from the Neo-Gothic Tribune Tower to Wacker Drive, from which I could spot Helmut’s third floor office. It was instantly identifiable because of what was in the window—a large model sailboat that advertised his passion for yacht racing. The boat was named—what else?—Flash Gordon.
Helmut’s office would be filled with architectural models of his latest projects, usually skyscrapers. After a quick chat, we would take the bird-cage elevator up to the cupola, a high-ceilinged, light-filled space with fabulous skyline views. As much as his green Porsche Carrera or his Versace suits, this elegant aerie was part and parcel of Helmut’s glamorous “starchitect” image. But that image belied his burning intensity and incredible work ethic.
When Tom Beeby and Helmut were young guns in the C.F. Murphy office, Beeby would get to the office at 7:30 on a Sunday morning thinking he was the first to work—only to discover that Helmut already had signed in. In the middle of the night, Helmut would awake with an idea, reach for his Mont Blanc pen with the brown ink, and start sketching. His wife, Deborah, often had to launder spilled brown ink out of the sheets.
The buildings and urban spaces that emanated from that pen have transformed skylines and cities around the globe. His Liberty Place towers are icons of Philadelphia. His Sony Center, an engine of the revitalized Berlin. His United Terminal, a brilliant gateway to Chicago. Like many architects with long careers, Helmut’s designs went through formal phases. There was the boldly expressive modernism of McCormick Place, with its vast cantilevered roof, that he designed with Gene Summers. The flamboyant postmodernism of the Thompson Center. And the refined archi-neering of the Sony Center, on which he collaborated with engineer Werner Sobek. But there were distinct through lines as he transitioned from style to style and from wunderkind to old master:
The first through line combined a respect for Miesian principles of construction with a break from the Miesian box and monochromatic palette, evident in a variety of shapes, vibrant colors, historical references, and designs, like his acclaimed Xerox Centre, that engaged the urban context rather than stand apart from it.
A second through line: The embrace of cutting-edge technology, not for its own sake but for the way it could enhance human experience. As I discovered during my trips to see German buildings like the Hotel Kempinski, Helmut was doing large, cable-supported walls of transparent low-iron glass long before that practice became standard in Chicago. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, he and his collaborators sometimes pushed technology beyond its limits—most notably at the Thompson Center. That building’s functional flaws, he once remarked in a brutally honest self-assessment, made his reputation around the world and killed it in Chicago.
A third through line: Breaks with convention that were grounded in practicality and responded to new circumstances rather than engaging in a superficial quest for the new. The United Terminal is the prime example. Its parallel concourses broke with the Y-shaped floor plans of O’Hare’s original terminals because the arrangement enabled jets to move more quickly to and from their gates. Yet its details were as compelling as its diagram. Its airy, barrel-vaulted concourses and the spectacular underground corridor that connects them, with its colorful, kinetic light sculpture, did nothing less than revolutionize the experience of air travel.
Knowing that I’d be speaking today, I stopped to admire the terminal last week when I was flying from O’Hare. As I looked at the soothing daylight filtering through the steel barrel vaults, I thought of the vision and courage it took to break from precedent and the skill and artistry necessary to make that break a thing of transcendent beauty. Great Chicago architects have worked comparable magic since skyscrapers first rose in the Loop. They transformed the gritty stuff of everyday life into what the Germans call baukunst: the art of building. There’s no doubt that Helmut richly deserves a place in that pantheon. His influence and spirit will live on, not just in the construction of his tallest Chicago tower, 1000M, or in the upcoming renovation of the Thompson Center, but in the ideas and practices he transmitted to architects throughout the city and the world. His legacy recalls the epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren at St. Paul’s Cathedral: “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”
These remarks were given at a memorial for Jahn, held on May 7th, in The Langham Hotel in the Mies-designed 330 North Wabash high-rise in Chicago. Other speakers included the engineer Werner Sobek, the architect and developer David Hovey, the landscape architect Peter Walker, Helmut’s widow Deborah and their son Evan. Featured image: Helmut Jahn, in 2016, via Dezeen.