A year after his death, Helmut Jahn’s company looks forward to new projects and a new name: JAHN/
The spectacular and much-maligned James R. Thompson Center will be an office building reborn in a few years, if all goes according to plan.
It is as it should be. Illinois’ last three governors have attempted to send this postmodern icon to the scrap heap, citing the building’s nine-figure rehabilitation costs while ignoring its architectural significance.
But when conservationists and others began defending the building in 2017, the most prominent voice was that of its architect, Helmut Jahn.
“Repurposing the building in the right way could go beyond what the building ever was, make it better, more public, and a place where you want to work, spend the night, live, or just visit and feel good” , Jahn said in a Thompson Center Reuse Plan he and his firm created on their own and released in February 2020.
“Miracles and dreams can come true,” Jahn said.
Developer Michael Reschke, president of Prime Group, announced last December that his company would purchase and rehabilitate the Thompson Center, turning to Jahn’s firm to handle the work. It was bittersweet: Jahn died on May 8, 2021 in a bicycle accident in Saint-Charles.
“Very difficult,” said Jahn’s son, Evan Jahn, who became president of the company after his father’s death. “Is still.”
A year of change
This week, the company marks the year that has passed since Jahn’s death.
The company is continuing design work on the Thompson Center and sees other projects nearing completion, such as the Pritzker Military Archive Center in Somers, Wisconsin, 65 miles north of Chicago.
“My office was next to his,” chief executive Philip Castillo said. “It’s different not having that constant challenge. Helmut has always challenged us to be better and do better. It is now up to us to do so.
The company is also rebranding itself from JAHN to JAHN / – with the slash. This is the third branding for the 85-year-old company which started as CF Murphy, then Murphy/Jahn, then became JAHN about 10 years ago.
“When we’re talking about what the new graphic element really represents…the most important thing – that Jahn slash – is the opening of what comes next,” Evan Jahn said. “Trying to convey optimism of what the future holds.”
“People wondered how the company survived when Helmut was the one doing all the work?” Castillo reflects. In truth, teams of architects and designers have worked with Helmut Jahn, producing such icons as the Sony Center in Berlin, the magnificent United Airlines Terminal 1 at O’Hare and the Thompson Center, which opened in 1985.
What might be most difficult to replace or replicate is Helmut Jahn’s role as a civic voice with respect to Chicago’s architecture. As was the case with his 2020 plan for the Thompson Center, Helmut Jahn had the ability to present and publish his own ideas on architecture, preservation, and urban planning. Evan Jahn, Castillo and fellow general manager Steven Cook have said they are ready to take up that mantle.
Evan Jahn, who is not an architect, said his role is to manage customer relations and company operations, while Castillo and Cook handle building design.
“Helmut has acted as both the creative head and the designated business leader of the company, but it’s a great business for one person,” said Evan Jahn.
JAHN/’s potential ace at McCormick Place?
An example of the company’s ongoing commitment to improving the public realm could be found in the ill-fated design of JAHN’s McCormick Place Lakeside Center casino.
Of the five finalists selected by the city, JAHN/’s was the ace of the pack. But it was scrapped in March because the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority said those booking conventions at McCormick Place didn’t want the games to be so close. The MPEA also said it would need a new building if the Lakeside Center was converted into a casino.
Las Vegas shows that gambling and conventions can be successfully mixed. And the lost space at Lakeside Center could be made up for by building a new concourse west of DuSable Lake Shore Drive, connecting the south and west buildings of McCormick Place — something the MPEA even considered in 2017.
JAHN/’s plan would have added clear glass, lighting, and opened up Lakeside Center to its surroundings. The redesign would have made it a more exterior public building.
And the project would have been a kind of homecoming. Jahn worked alongside CF Murphy’s Gene Summers on the design of the building over 50 years ago.
Cook said McCormick Place casino could have been a site “adopted by everyone in Chicago” – which is no small feat given that the three current finalists are being loudly rejected by civic groups, aldermen and residents .
“There will be something else that comes up for this building,” Cook said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
There may be a gunshot. As Jahn himself said when the Thompson Center seemed doomed: “Miracles and dreams can come true.
Lee Bey is an architecture critic for the Sun-Times and a member of the editorial board.
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