In memoriam – “We do not construct decoration, we decorate construction.” Said once Helmut Jahn, who designed company headquarters, banks, airports and government buildings across the world, capturing the power-dressing pomp of the 1980s. The German-American architect was struck and killed by two vehicles while riding his bicycle in Chicago.
Among his most notorious buildings are the James R. Thompson Center and the United Airlines Terminal One at the O’Hare airport, both in Chicago, the Sony Centre complex on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin the One Liberty Place skyscraper in Philadelphia and the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.
Nicknamed the ‘Flash Gordon of architecture’ for his bold corporate postmodernism, Helmut Jhan captured the 80s rampant-power business spirit. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong in using a building to connote achievement and a certain commercial power,” he said. “Great statesmen, great emperors, great dictators always build great buildings.”
Born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1940, Helmut Jahn contributed to shaping the contemporary architecture scene of his adopted hometown Chicago where he studied under the modernist maestro Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Here, in 1980, he completed the Xerox Center – now 55 West Monroe -, an elegant 45-story office tower with a glass and aluminum curtain wall, a rounded corner and a two-story street front that undulates inward.
Also in Chicago, his James R. Thompson Center, 1985, rises like a sort of Pompidou Center turned inside out. The facade comes with a mix of reflective bluish-turquoise glass; inside, the circular atrium has a mix of salmon-colored and blue metal panels, while multicoloured granite lines the base.
The United Terminal One, 1987, pays tribute to 19th-century train stations; the column-free platform is paved with concrete and the walls are constructed of wavy glass block with backlighting. The project features a kaleidoscopic tunnel developed in collaboration with Canadian neon artist Michael Hayden.
Liberty Place in Philadelphia is a couple of steel and blue glass towers bursting through Philly’s height limit and heavily influenced by New York City’s Chrysler Building. His Sony Center in Postdamer Platz in Berlin, 1998, features a billowing fabric umbrella sheltering an open public forum.
The Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok is designed with structural elements and bays placed in a cantilevered, wavelike form to appear to “float” over the concourse beneath. A translucent membrane with three layers was developed to mediate between the interior and exterior climate, dealing with noise and temperature transmission, while still allowing the natural flow of daylight into the building along with views of the greenery outside.