The buildings of German-American architect Helmut Jahn (born 1940) dramatically combine the modernist, glass-skinned style of Mies van der Rohe with traditional architectural imagery. Always mindful of energy and cost efficiency, and yet convinced that buildings should enjoy a variety of colors, patterns, and textures, Jahn created technologically advanced structures that had widespread appeal.
Helmut Jahn was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1940. His father, William Anton Jahn, served in the German army during World War II. He spent a year as a prisoner of war in Philadelphia, Pennsylviania, in the United States. After the war, William Jahn returned to his career as a primary school teacher, a profession that he hoped young Helmut would pursue. His son, however, showed an aptitude for drawing and decided to become an architect, a decision that may have been inspired by his growing up among the war-ravaged buildings of his country. In 1965, Jahn received a diploma in architecture from a technical high school in Munich. With the help of a Rotary Club scholarship, he emigrated to the United States in 1966 and began postgraduate work in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Here Jahn was thoroughly imbued with the work of Mies van der Rohe, the German architect who designed the campus of IIT and left the school with a strong tradition of modernist design. While at IIT, Jahn studied with the structural engineer Fazlur Khan, whose discoveries about wind shear resistance made possible the construction of the Sears Tower in Chicago, the world's tallest building.
In 1967 Jahn entered the prestigious Chicago firm of C. F. Murphy and Associates. Working initially as an assistant to Gene Summers, Jahn spent much of his early tenure with the firm on the design of the huge McCormick Place convention center in Chicago. Within six years Jahn was promoted to director of planning and design.
Soon thereafter he began the first major project he could call his own, the Kemper Arena in Kansas City. Completed in 1974, the arena was the first of Jahn's so-called "mat" buildings, which were characterized by their low, flat profile and high-tech appearance. The most dramatic aspect of the arena was the roof, which was suspended over the building by three giant trusses, an idea perhaps inspired by Mies' Crown Hall at IIT. The structural supports for the building were left uncovered, inside and out, as were all the pipes, ductwork, and other mechanical components. Built in great haste, and of cheaper materials than the architect wanted, the roof of the arena collapsed during a wind storm in 1979. Nevertheless, the building won some prestigious awards and established Jahn as a flexible and reliable designer.
With the onset of the energy crisis in the mid 1970s, Jahn turned his attention toward designing structures that were energy efficient. For the Auraria Library in Denver (1975), he provided external blinds to prevent too much direct sunlight from entering during the summer. The blinds were angled to admit what warming sunlight is available during the winter. Similar louvers were employed in Jahn's Program Support Facility building for the Argonne (Illinois) National Laboratories (1978-1982). This building was shaped like a truncated disk, sporting three rows of ribbon windows facing north. The shape reduced the building's heat loss during the winter and facilitated the entry of indirect northern light, thereby reducing the amount of energy needed to artificially illuminate the structure. Another of Jahn's mat buildings, the St. Mary's Athletic Facility in South Bend, Indiana (1977), was sunk well into the ground and surrounded by an earth berm. This not only decreased the scale of the huge gymnasium (making it more compatible with the other low-profile buildings around it), but significantly improved its ability to retain heat.
Reaching New Heights
In the late 1970s Jahn secured some major urban commissions that caused him to move from mat buildings to skyscrapers. In so doing, the architect was able to demonstrate a sensitivity to urban context often lacking in modern architecture. In his Chicago Board of Trade Addition (1978-1982), for instance, Jahn visually united the addition to the original 1930 Board of Trade Building by employing setbacks, a hipped roof, and a vertical window arrangement that echo features of the older building. Inside are curved lines and scallop-shaped ornaments that recall the Art Deco style of the 1930s. The architect's respect for history appears even in his most modernistic of urban structures, the State of Illinois Center in Chicago (1979-1985), which has a curved facade and a glazed atrium that connects it with the classical tradition of elegant, domed administrative centers.
Jahn's love of curves and setbacks executed in glass resulted in some of the most dramatic skyscraper designs of the last quarter of the twentieth century, including One Liberty Place in Philadelphia (1987) and Park Avenue Tower in New York City (1986). In such buildings Jahn, like Mies before him, employed rich materials and colors to delight the eye: terrazzo floors, marble walls, black plastic laminate elevators with aluminum stripes, pink ceilings. Taking his buildings well beyond their mere functional requirements, Jahn used his architecture to make a statement. He said, "I don't think there's anything wrong in using a building to connote achievement and a certain commercial power. I think that's the way architecture has been used historically. Great statesmen, great emperors, great dictators always build great buildings."
The 1990s saw a decline in building in the United States so Jahn stayed busy with foreign projects. Two of these, the Kurfurstendamm office building in Berlin, Germany and the Munich Order Center, also in Germany, won prestigious awards in 1995 from the American Institute of Arts. In the second half of the 1990s, Jahn's focus seemed to return to the United States. His works were included in the U.S. entry to the sixth Venice Architecture Biennale, which featured the architecture of Disney. In 1997, Jahn entered two major architectural competitions, one for a new campus center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the other for the Coliseum on Columbus Circle in New York City.
Jahn himself could be described as a flamboyant personality. He wore fashionably long hair and expensive Italian suits, drove a Porsche, skied in Aspen, went scuba diving in Australia, and sailed in the Chicago-to-Mackinac Island yacht race. This side of his life, though, was tempered with long hours in his Chicago offices. In 1981, he was made a principal in the firm of Murphy/Jahn, becoming president and chief executive officer two years later. The winner of some of the most prestigious awards in his profession, Jahn also served as a visiting professor of architecture at both Harvard (1981) and Yale (1983). Married to Deborah Lampe in 1970, Jahn had one son.
Further Reading on Helmut Jahn
The best single book on Jahn is Nory Miller-s Helmut Jahn (1986).This volume contains a complete bibliography and includes some outstanding photographs and drawings; reviews of Jahn-s work appear in Mark Michael Leonhart, "Helmut Jahn: The Building of a Legend," New Art Examiner 15 (November 1987); and Jim Murphy, "To Be Continued (New Buildings and Projects by Helmut Jahn)," Progressive Architecture 71 (March 1990); Jahn himself did not write much, but one of the best interviews with him can be found in Barbarlee Diamonstein, ed., American Architecture Now II (1985).
Additional Biography Sources
Dickerson, Maria. "Disney Architecture to be Shown at Exhibit." Los Angeles Times, 3 September 1996.
Kamin, Blair. "ITT Going Worldwide for Design of Center." Chicago Tribune, 1997.
—. "Urban Dressing: Projects by Chicago Architects Sweep Up Prestigious National Design Awards." Chicago Tribune, 28 November 1995.
—. "The Sky-s the Limit: Designers Honor Chicago Architects-Best Buildings." Chicago Tribune, 24 September 1995.
Muschamp, Herbert. "Worthy of a World Capital." The New York Times, 19 January 1997.
Rechtenwald, William. "Thirsty Tiger Uses Wind to Win Mac." Chicago Tribune, 18 July 1995.