For many years, if you stood in Helmut Jahn’s office at 35 E. Wacker and looked out the window, you were confronted with the ugliest building in Chicago: the Sun-Times’ home at 401 N. Wabash, a squat, trapezoidal relic that, next to the Venetian splendor of the Wrigley Building, looked like an overturned gray galvanized metal tub set beside a spun sugar ivory Victorian wedding cake.
Perhaps to block that view, Jahn kept in the window a model of the latest version of his sailing sloop, Flash Gordon, which won the Chicago to Mackinac Race in 1995. Its presence was a violation of his own edict not to keep “personal things” at work; the reverse being true at his home, which was free from images of the stunning buildings he created around the world during his long career.
“A place for each,” he told me, when I stopped by Murphy/Jahn for a visit, years ago. Born in Nuremberg, he had a fierce devotion to order, both a very German and very architectural quality: all of his paper clips were red, his push pins gray.
Jahn didn’t hang around the office much anyway, spending half his time on the road, traveling the world, building dramatic structures in China, Thailand, Qatar, Germany, Poland.
His main gift to Chicago was the much-loved, much-hated Thompson Center. “Modern Masterpiece or Blue Turkey?” the Wall Street Journal asked when it opened in May 1985, and of course the correct answer is “both.” The soaring 17-story lobby, inspired by the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, was a must-see for Chicago tourists who gawked at its soaring blue and salmon enclosed space.
They also jammed the glass elevators, making it hard for state workers to get to their offices, one of a number of design flaws that made working there a challenge, particularly the greenhouse effect of that curved whale of glass that had sweltering state employees putting fans on their desks and cowering under umbrellas to protect them from the sun.
“It’s obscene,” Chicago architect Harry Weese said at the time, one of countless criticisms fired at Jahn, who never gave up on his vision. Just last year, he came up with a plan to save the Thompson Center, repurposing it as a kind of enclosed urban forest.
To continue reading, click here.