Monday, May 10, 2021

Helmut Jahn left his mark on Chicago


     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.


  1. The Sun-Times Building was never in the competition for the ugliest building in Chicago.
    That prize will be owned forever by Tom Beebe's atrocity of the Harold Washington Library, which is not only ugly on the outside, but a non-functioning mess on the inside.

    1. You're correct about the interior—it's as if the place is designed to thwart those attempting to go in and check out books. But the outside ... maybe the thing is an indictment of the democratic system, since it was selected by popular vote over a number of other designs. I have to admit liking it, particularly the massive bronze frou-frou along the top.

    2. But it wasn't chosen by the public.
      The public chose the Canadian architect's design, which was a sinuous, rounded two section building, that went over the L tracks on Van Buren.
      It was the jury that picked Beebe's atrocity.
      As it's Chicago, the vote was fixed.

      BTW, those monstrosities on top are aluminum.

  2. The HW Library and the Thompson building are ugly buildings, but ugly in interesting ways. The ugliest prominent building to me is the Water Tower building, a plain, dreadful monolith that looks like it was designed by an East German architect on a deadline. An abomination.

  3. Casting an "ugliest" honorable mention for the Hiliard Apartment towers near Chinatown.

  4. Jahn's plan for the HW Library should have been chosen.

  5. "Architecture: the profession of designing buildings, open areas, communities, and other artificial constructions and environments, usually with some regard to aesthetic effect."

    Seems to me that the Thompson Center was a magnificent piece of architecture, while also being a lousy building for practical purposes. It's certainly an artificial environment with quite a bit of regard to aesthetic effect, which I always found exhilirating.

    Of course, I ended up liking the old Sun-Times building, too, once I came to appreciate it's "barge on the river" reference. At any rate, it was a utilitarian building for a utilitarian purpose. At least the sign on its facade did not make me want to scream, which the one on the beautiful building that replaced it does.

    The competition for "the ugliest building in Chicago" would be a stiff one, indeed. If I were voting, none of the examples mentioned here would even be in the running. A stroll around the UIC campus would probably suggest a candidate or two, though.

  6. As a former student of Architecture (3 years at Ball State; didn't graduate), I would say the biggest challenge in Architecture is to be Not Boring. If you can be noteworthy enough to cause others to argue over whether your design is trash, then you've achieved something. Everything beyond that point is purely subjective, the opinion of the viewer.

    I worked for many years at 101 North Wacker, whose claim to fame is that it's the Most Nondescript Building in Chicago. 23 floors of horizontal gray bands. When they redesigned the elevator lobby some years ago, the new treatment was plain white glass. Even Google StreetView won't show it to you, assuming that you made a typing error.

    But the Thompson Center provides a Wow factor, regardless of whether it succeeds at the function for which it was intended. Hollywood came calling in late 1985 before it was even finished, filming the climactic shootout of the Gregory Hines/Billy Crystal action film "Running Scared" inside the building (with construction equipment visible in the background of some shots), taking full advantage of its huge atrium and multiple glass elevators. In contrast, my old office building shows up in the background of a Transformers film, but only because alien invaders were smashing everything in sight.

  7. The Sun-Times Building (401 N. Wabash), was pretty blah from the outside, but the view from the fourth-floor newsroom windows was pretty memorable. The ice choking the river on below-zero days. The passage of the enormous (562 ft.) cement carrier--the Medusa Challenger---which frequently got stuck because of bridge malfunctions. The lights from the buildings across the river at twilight (or at dawn) along Wacker Drive. And the view down Wabash, at the other end of the bridge, where you could see the southwest corner of the in 'L' structure.

    I'll never forget how illuminated it was on the night of the fatal 'L' crash in the winter of '77. You could see the workers lifting the 25-ton cars onto flatbed trucks. After sunrise, I crossed the bridge and watched the cleanup from across the street.

    The Thompson Center had a very popular food court at the lowest level when it opened in the Eighties. I often ate my lunch there, during my days on LaSalle Street. That black and white circular design, right in the center of the floor, always creeped me out. What a tempting target for the suicidal.

    It finally happened one morning, before the lunchtime rush. That atrium is quite wide. The leaper missed the bullseye by quite a bit. Gotta wonder if it happened more than once, and if anybody ever hit it. It would take quite a leap--of whatever is the opposite of faith.


This blog posts comments at the discretion of the proprietor.