Helmut Jahn, ‘Convention-Busting’ Architect, Dies at 81

The Four Percent


Helmut Jahn, a German-born architect who designed buildings around the world but was most influential in his adopted hometown, Chicago, where he conceived of an extravagant downtown home to state government and the United Airlines terminal at O’Hare International Airport, died on Saturday in a traffic accident near the horse farm where he lived, in St. Charles, Ill. He was 81.

His wife, Deborah (Lampe) Jahn, confirmed the death. He had been riding his bicycle in suburban Campton Hills when he was struck by two cars that were heading in opposite directions. A news release from the local police department said that Mr. Jahn failed to brake at a stop sign.

A modernist who began a long flirtation with postmodernism in the 1970s, Mr. Jahn (pronounced “yahn”) designed the Xerox Center, an elegant 45-story office tower with a glass and aluminum curtain wall, a rounded corner and a two-story streetfront that undulates inward that opened in 1980 in Chicago’s Loop.

Newsweek called Mr. Jahn the “Flash Gordon of American architecture” in 1982. Three years later GQ featured him on its cover wearing a dashing fedora with the headline “Helmut Jahn Has an Edifice Complex.”

Mr. Jahn didn’t mind the criticism. “I’d rather have people talk about buildings than say, ‘Well, that’s just another building that I didn’t see,’” he told GQ.

In 1987 came the opening of United Terminal One, a sprawling homage to 19th-century train stations. A riot of glass and exposed steel framework, it has curves that allow for various ceiling heights and black-and-white floors outlined in red seams.

With Mr. Summers, Mr. Jahn helped design the new McCormick Place convention center in Chicago, replacing the one that had been destroyed by a fire in 1967. In 1973, when Mr. Summers left, Mr. Jahn became the firm’s director of planning and design.

In 1974, Kemper Arena (now Hy-Vee Arena) in Kansas City, Mo., opened, with a modernist design by Mr. Jahn that included a roof suspended by exterior steel trusses — not the traditional interior columns — that offered unobstructed sightlines. But five years later the roof collapsed in a rainstorm.

The failure was found to have been caused by the fracture of high strength bolts that helped suspend the roof.

In 1981, Murphy Associates became Murphy/Jahn; Mr. Jahn became the firm’s president a year later and acquired it in 1983. It was renamed Jahn in 2012.

After designing the State of Illinois Center (which would be renamed the James R. Thompson Center, for the Illinois Republican governor who backed it), Mr. Jahn worked with Donald J. Trump to design a 150-floor tower that would have been the centerpiece of a megacomplex on the West Side of Manhattan called Television City.

That plan never came to fruition, and the site later became a pared-down development called Riverside South.

Mr. Jahn’s other projects in Manhattan included the 70-story CitySpire in Midtown, behind City Center, and 425 Lexington Avenue, which the architecture critic Carter Horsley dismissed in The City Review in 1987 for its “Roto-Rooterized top,” which he said looked like a “squished foil to the irrepressible upward thrust of the Chrysler Building just across 43rd Street.”



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