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Jahn, Helmutlocked

(b Nuremberg, Jan 4, 1940).
  • Martha Pollak

American architect of German birth. A graduate of the Technische Hochschule in Munich (1965), he pursued architectural studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Chicago, where he studied with Myron Goldsmith and Fazlur Khan. Having joined the respected Chicago architectural firm of C. F. Murphy in 1967, he became Principal of the renamed office Murphy/Jahn (1981), then President (1982) and Chief Executive officer (1983). Jahn’s reputation is due to the great number, prominence, and memorable character of his buildings. Using broad references from architectural history and appealing to a public visual memory nurtured on cartoons and Hollywood movies, he made use of a wide range of sources from the recent and distant past for his architectural compositions. Many of his works—eclectic pastiches that unite familiar and exotic elements—overwhelm the surrounding context and baffle the visitor with colour, megalomaniac scale, and effective use of sophisticated American construction techniques. New materials and structural ideas are used by Jahn with a consummate virtuosity that endows his buildings with the dramatic expression, movement, and restrained energy previously reserved for the harnessed power of applied modern science (rockets, nuclear stations). Simultaneously with the scene designers of contemporary science-fiction films, he realized the fantastic architecture projected in the 1920s and 1930s for a ‘brave new world’. This quality and its immediate visual appeal are most evident in the skyscrapers of the 1980s such as the Xerox Centre (1980), Chicago, the addition to the Board of Trade (1982), Chicago, and his 701 Fourth Avenue South office building (1984), Minneapolis.

Jahn also built commissions outside the city centre. His suburban office and commercial structures, such as those in Naperville and Evanston, near Chicago, have transformed their areas, endowing them with a new urban character. In the United Airlines Terminal in O’Hare Airport (1987), Chicago, Jahn used visual effects of light and colour to alleviate the boredom and uniformity of an artificial environment while efficiently processing large numbers of travellers (see Airports in the USA). In contrast, at the State of Illinois Center (1985), Chicago, he combined the successful architectural vocabulary of the Hyatt Hotels (conceived in the early 1970s by John Portman) with ironic Post-modernism and a coral-pink and powder-blue colour scheme, endowing public space with an aimless leisure and whimsy unsuited to the gravity of a governmental institution. His projects of the late 1980s to 1990s include Hyatt Hotels in Amsterdam, Frankfurt am Main, and Munich, and numerous skyscrapers, in Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York (Park Avenue, Lexington Avenue, the Television City project, Times Square). In New York the potentially harmful effect of their excessive height was ignored in favour of their capricious conception as anchors for dirigible airships.

Jahn taught at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (Elliot Noyes Visiting Professor of Architecture, 1981), and Yale University, New Haven, CT (Davenport Visiting Professor of Architectural Design, 1983), and received an honorary doctoral degree from St Mary’s College, South Bend, IN (1980). He received numerous awards, including those from the American Institute of Architects, Progressive Architecture and other institutions concerned with building. His work was exhibited in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Milan, Venice, Paris, Frankfurt, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo.


  • C. Jencks: Late-Modern Architecture (New York, 1980)
  • P. Goldberger: The Skyscraper (New York, 1981)
  • The Architecture of Helmut Jahn: An Introductory Bibliography (Monticello, IL, 1983)
  • P. Portoghesi: Postmodern: The Architecture of the Post-industrial Society (New York, 1984)
  • J. A. Joedicke, ed.: Helmut Jahn: Design einer neuen Architektur (Stuttgart and Zurich, 1986) [parallel Eng. and Fr. trans.]
  • H. Klotz: Vision der Moderne (Frankfurt, 1986)
  • N. Miller: Helmut Jahn (New York, 1986)
  • J. Thielemans: ‘Helmut Jahn: A Postmodern Architect in Chicago’, American Literature and the Arts, ed. J. Callens (Brussels, 1991)
  • S. Anna, ed.: Archi-Neering: Helmut Jahn, Werner Sobek (Ostfildern, 1999)
  • W. Blaser: Helmut Jahn: Architecture Engineering (Basle and Boston, 2002)
  • J. S. Russell: ‘It’s Helmut Jahn’s Moment’, Architectural Record, 192/5 (May 2004), pp. 96–102