"Helmut Jahn: Life + Architecture" Credit: Courtesy Chicago Architecture Center

It’s sad but true that we’re never so much appreciated as when we’re newly dead. Especially if the death is sudden and unexpected.

Three months ago, as preservationists were sounding alarms over Governor J.B. Pritzker’s decision to empty out Helmut Jahn’s iconic Thompson Center and offer it up to the highest bidder for possible demolition (neither Chicago’s status as an architectural center nor Jahn’s international reputation giving him pause), Jahn, 81, was killed in a traffic accident.  

As that news spread through the city’s architectural community, there was quick agreement on the need for some sort of public tribute. An exhibit team gelled in two days, and Helmut Jahn: Life + Architecture opened July 23 at the Chicago Architecture Center.

The exhibit is an overview, not specifically focused on the Thompson Center. But, as Aaron Betsky, director of the School of Architecture and Design at Virginia Tech, notes in a lyrical introductory tribute, “We better save the Thompson Center, which is not only one of [Jahn’s] greatest designs, but one of the few true celebrations of government as a public good.”  

“With a burst of shattering, curving, and bulging glass in a rainbow of colors Helmut Jahn danced onto the international architecture scene in the 1980s, translating the discipline of Chicago Modernism into new programs and forms while melting and fragmenting its grids into a post-disco delight of shaped buildings . . . More than the designs of almost any other architect . . . Helmut expressed structure, space, and publicity as an interwoven whole that said: come here, be here, be part of this,” Betsky wrote.

Housed in CAC’s second-floor Drake Family Skyscraper Gallery, the exhibit features 15 tabletop models, a loop of short videos, some of Jahn’s drawings, and three large walls of photos and text, bookended by two timelines—one for significant personal events and professional honors, the other listing major projects. It’s a life/work history, fleshed out with testimonials and abundant, generously enlarged photos, including snapshots plucked from family albums and billboard-size, mythmaking portraits. Jahn, athletic and elegant, was notably photogenic: we see him running, sailing (a model of his boat, the Flash Gordon, is also here), and gracing the cover of GQ in trademark fedora.  

The models are a mix of international projects and local buildings, including two still under construction: the 73-story 1000M on South Michigan Avenue, and the Pritzker Military Archives, in Somers (near Kenosha), Wisconsin. You’ll also find models for University of Chicago projects and Illinois Institute of Technology’s State Street Village (now Rowe Village), but the two standouts among these Lilliputian displays are gleaming, glassy sculptural renditions of the landmark Sony Center, opened in Berlin in 2000, and the 1985 building that inspired it, Chicago’s Thompson Center (never mind the ungainly potential tower grafted to its southwest corner).

The show, developed in a necessary hurry, could use a couple of tweaks. It would be good to have a few signs making it clear that the large white models of skyscrapers that dominate this gallery are a permanent exhibit and not part of the Jahn show. (“I don’t think Jahn did Petronas Towers,” I heard one visitor tell another.) Also, it could use a separate, quiet space with seating for the excellent short videos (where, for example, you can catch Jahn explaining that “I can only think when I draw,” and “I haven’t done the perfect building yet; that’s what keeps me going.”).

“This is not a retrospective,” CAC senior curator Michael Wood told me. “This is a celebration of Helmut’s work. It was put together very quickly, without the time to do the deep research a retrospective would require. We did that because we think it’s important that the public understand the place Helmut holds in the lineage of Chicago architecture history. He’s one of the last great designers going back to that iconic era of Chicago building in the International style of Mies. He starts his career there and he is incredibly productive in every decade up until his death. He worked all over the world, he represented us globally.”

Jahn, who was born in Germany and came here in 1966 to study at IIT, “chose us as his adopted hometown,” Wood added. “He immigrated to Chicago, we embraced him, and we’re the better for it.” 

CAC does not have an official position on the Thompson Center “at the moment,” Wood said, “other than we think there should be more public discussion.” But in June, CAC partnered with the Chicago Architectural Club to launch a design competition for the future of the Center. The jury for this 2021 edition of the club’s annual Chicago Prize Competition will meet this week to select winners.  

The competition had been in the works for a while, Wood said: “With Helmut’s death it seemed more urgent to get the ideas out now, while there would be a moment of appreciation.” Winners will be displayed in a pop-up exhibit in the CAC lobby.

The state’s deadline for proposals to purchase the Thompson Center is August 30.  v

“Helmut Jahn: Life + Architecture” at the Chicago Architecture Center, 111 E. Wacker, open daily through October, 10 AM-5 PM, $15 general admission to CAC (free for members).