Helmut Jahn, one of American architecture's most celebrated figures, dies age 81

Updated 10th May 2021
Architect Helmut Jahn died aged 81 years old in a cycling accident Saturday.
Credit: Andreas Müller/VISUM/Redux
Helmut Jahn, one of American architecture's most celebrated figures, dies age 81
Written by Oscar Holland, CNNMegan C. Hills, CNN
Helmut Jahn, the architect behind some of America's best-known buildings, has died in a bicycle accident aged 81.
The German-American designer, whose high-profile projects include Liberty Place in Philadelphia and Terminal 1 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, was involved in a collision with two vehicles Saturday, according to Cameron Hills Police Department in Illinois. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Born in Germany in 1940, Jahn arrived in the US in the mid-1960s to study under the modernist master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). In 1967, he joined architecture firm C. F. Murphy Associates, which he would later take full ownership of, before renaming it Murphy/Jahn and then simply Jahn.
One Liberty Place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, pictured in 2015.
One Liberty Place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, pictured in 2015. Credit: Bill McCay/Getty Images
Jahn's buildings often celebrated their frames and structural elements, rather than hiding them away behind tidy facades. But while his often-complex amalgamations of glass of steel marked a notable departure from the modernism of his early teacher, Mies, he was similarly deferential to history and context in his embrace of high-tech engineering.
Jahn's early career saw him working on various large-scale public and civic buildings, from the imposing Kemper Arena in Kansas City to the Michigan City Public Library in Indiana. But it was his work in Chicago, his adopted home city, that established his reputation as one of America's great contemporary architects.
In particular, his State of Illinois Center, completed in 1985 and better known as the James R. Thompson Center, became one of his most enduring designs. With its sloped glass facade and towering open atrium, the 17-story structure not only became one of downtown Chicago's most recognizable buildings, but a bold architectural expression of transparency and open government.
A short history of the world's tallest buildings
However, Jahn's best-known -- or certainly his most widely-used -- creation, was his 500,000-square-foot Terminal 1 building at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Most memorably, he masterminded an iconic pedestrian tunnel linking two concourses and photogenically illuminated in neon by Canadian artist Michael Hayden.
Also renowned for high-rises, Jahn redefined Philadelphia's skyline with his "Neo-Deco" One Liberty Place towers, which put a bold contemporary spin on the Chrysler building. Jahn also worked internationally, completing major projects on four different continents, from the Sony Center in Berlin to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Though regarded as a key figure in the postmodernism movement, he opted for simpler, cleaner forms in his later career. Buildings such as the Cosmopolitan Twarda in Warsaw, completed in 2013, and 50 West Street building in Lower Manhattan both demonstrated a more understated approach to skyscraper design.
Helmut Jahn's striking Sony Center in Berlin, Germany.
Helmut Jahn's striking Sony Center in Berlin, Germany. Credit: Zeitort/ullstein bild/Getty Images
In 1991, Jahn was named alongside the late César Pelli as one of the "Ten Most Influential Living American Architects" by the American Institute of Architects. He also held various teaching posts through his career, including at the University of Illinois Chicago, Harvard University, Yale University and IIT, according to a profile on his firm's website.
As news of Jahn's death emerged on the weekend, tributes began flowing in from Chicago residents and the architecture world. A number of social media users posted images of themselves inside the rainbow-colored tunnel at O'Hare International in remembrance of its late creator.
Chicago's mayor, Lori Lightfoot, praised Jahn as one of the city's "most inventive" architects, adding that "his impact on the city -- from the skyline to the O'Hare tunnel -- will never be forgotten."
The University of Chicago, where Jahn completed a striking glass-domed library in 2011, meanwhile tweeted that the architect had left "an enduring impact" on its campus.
Top image: Helmut Jahn picture in Munich, Germany, in 2012.