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Helmut Jahn: reaching for a futuristic architecture

By Jane Holtz KaySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 4, 1983


Helmut Jahn is a state-of-the-art architect in a cutting-edge city. If nothing else, the architect has swelled the number of adjectives used in discussing Chicago design.

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A whole roster of words have entered the lexicon of the city's core to describe his latest concoctions. The German-born designer has pulled out the full repertoire of architectural stops. Swirls, slopes, swerves, scallops - not to mention undulations, truncations, and stops and starts of all the above - characterize his structures.

For much of a decade, Jahn has gone to all lengths to avoid the right-angled box, from the low, round, checkerboard Argonne National Laboratory to the erratic, jutting red and blue missile planned for a South African commercial building.

Within the dark masonry canyons of the Windy City, especially, his latest four buildings of the '80s have zapped the down-to-earth image of the 80 -architect firm of C.F. Murphy (now Murphy/Jahn) with the electricity of their lightning-rod looks.

''Dear Mies,'' a fellow architect addressed the bygone father figure of the international style in the magazine Architectual Record a few years ago. ''When you were here, the C.F. Murphy firm was solid. . . . Now this fellow Helmut Jahn is doing some strange things.''

Strange? ''Rational and intuitive,'' Jahn responds.

Sitting in his office recently, his gray silk hat and jacket draped over a chrome chair, the prince of panache answers questions in a calm, pragmatic fashion. ''Buildings also have to be reasonable in adhering to certain principles,'' he says. ''Mies was as drastically different as any architect in any time. With 20 or 30 years distance, we feel his architecture fits.''

Jahn is not alone here in swerving from the stone-and-steel tradition of the city this decade. Kohn Pedersen's recent deco design at 333 Wacker Street; the dog face contoured into the veterinarian hospital by Stanley Tigerman; and the pyramid-fronted building now rising on the Magnificent Mile display the forms that make the history of Chicago's architecture one of architectural innovation.

But even within this inventive tradition, Jahn's unsettling quartet in the city core - One South Wacker Drive, the addition to Holabird and Root's Board of Trade Building, the Xerox Centre, and his almost-finished Illinois state office building - puts him at center stage.

''Infill'' is the firm's description of the striking glass Xerox Centre with its rounded corner, ''infill'' meaning that the building has a nice fit in the context of the street. Nonetheless, in the range between context and conspicuousness, one would have to describe most Jahn buildings as less than deferential to the context of the city. The glistening facade and strange form of the latest showstopper State of Illinois Building, above all, is hardly a token nod to one's notion of downtown.

No two sides of the $170 million, 100-million-square-foot structure are alike. From top (250 feet) to bottom, the building changes form and color. Its shape (180 feet in diameter) is polygonal; its roof, sliced; its sides, three tones of blue glass, darkening as they touch the ground.