The Rebuilding Process | Architecture | Chicago Reader

The Rebuilding Process 

The Thompson Center debacle sent him into architectural exile, but with his new IIT dorms Helmut Jahn has shot back into the spotlight and our good graces.

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"The undisputed crown prince of Chicago architecture" is what they were calling Helmut Jahn 20 years ago. His wife, Deborah, had transformed the hardworking but scruffy German emigre into a glamorous fashion plate worthy of a GQ profile, and Jahn was ready to set the city on its ear with a building for the state of Illinois that people compared to a spaceship and a blue-glassed Northwestern Atrium Center shaped like a cascading waterfall.

It would be a short reign. By the end of the 80s, the prince had turned into a frog. Commissions began to dry up, and Jahn became an exile in his own city. After 1991 the closest he came to building in Chicago was the suburb of Niles, where in 2000 his Ha-Lo headquarters took over the mantle of town's most famous building from the Leaning Tower YMCA. In recent years he's been excoriated in the press for everything from creating "the ugliest building in Chicago" to not cleaning up after his German shepherd in Lincoln Park.

Until last Tuesday, that is, which was officially proclaimed "Helmut Jahn Day" by Mayor Daley. Jahn is back, not just in Chicago but at the Bronzeville campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he began his career as a graduate student 37 years ago and where he's just unveiled State Street Village, his new take on the idea of a college dorm. "I was living in a little dorm at Wabash and 33rd Street, which was so old that it is already torn down," Jahn reminisced at the dedication. The project ends the university's own dry spell by being the first new building on campus in nearly 40 years. Jahn snatched the honor from rival architect Rem Koolhaas, whose student center to the north has seen its original 2002 completion date pushed back by construction delays.

"I wasn't really prepared to give a big speech," said Jahn, known for his discomfort with public speaking, and for a moment as he stood at the podium, the wear of his 63 years flashed across his deeply tanned face. But as he spoke about his new baby, his face brightened with an almost boyish enthusiasm, much as the dark, threatening clouds had yielded to bright sunshine just before the ceremony. At the ribbon cutting he was joined by IIT president Lew Collens, dean of architecture Donna Robertson, and Exelon's John Rowe, standing in for IIT's Mies Society chair, former governor James Thompson.

Thompson was missed, because he represents a closing of the circle. As possibly the last in a long line of corporate and civic leaders who combined ego, power, and taste to leave an enduring mark on the Chicago skyline, it was Thompson who shot Jahn into the stratosphere by handpicking him to design the State of Illinois Center. Jahn presented the governor with three models, hedging his bets by including two conservative ringers. Thompson went straight for the daring design, and there was no turning back.

With its sleek curves, cool colors, and tilted-lid roof over a 17-story open-balconied atrium, Jahn's design made him an international celebrity. It also brought out the sniping. An engineer at local architectural powerhouse Skidmore, Owings & Merrill groused in Crain's that Jahn was more a sculptor than an architect and that it was clear his designs bore "no engineering input." Jahn denied the charge, but construction was plagued by problems. When the bids for the building's massive quantities of glass came in several times over the architect's estimate, the elegant translucent blue, gray, and white panels he had envisioned wound up being replaced by the far more opaque salmon and robin's egg blue that have been the object of derision ever since.

More crucially, the use of insulating glass was scrapped, saving money but cutting energy efficiency by 30 percent. Engineers tried to compensate with a more sophisticated--and expensive--cooling system designed to keep energy costs from soaring out of control, but it proved so inadequate that by July of 1985, the year the building opened, temperatures inside reached 90 degrees. Here and there, beach umbrellas popped up over employee desks, both as a grim joke and to shield computer monitors from the glare of the morning sun, unimpeded by the single-pane windows. A festival of acrimonious litigation followed, including the state's suing Murphy/Jahn and 12 other contractors for negligence, malpractice, and breach of contract, and Murphy/Jahn countersuing to the effect that the firm had nothing to do with the design of the ventilation system.

The State of Illinois Center's woes made Jahn appear high risk at the same time that a general failure of nerve began to infect Chicago architecture. In the building boom of the late 1980s, most new big-ticket projects not only shrank from the city's rich legacy, they seemed to apologize for it with a nervous postmodern blandness that was completely at odds with Jahn's approach. He lost the competition for the new Harold Washington Library to a design whose most distinguishing feature was a series of giant aluminum owls on the roof, and where, until recently, you had to walk the equivalent of half a city block inside the building before you got near any actual books.

But the James R. Thompson Center--as it was renamed in 1993--also had positive effects on Jahn's career. In 1991, just as his star was dimming in Chicago, it was rising in Europe. An executive at Sony, which had just signed a contract to build an $800 million mixed-use complex in newly reunified Berlin, remembered being so impressed by the Thompson Center during a trip to Chicago that he made sure Jahn was on the short list of seven international architectural firms invited to compete for the project, and in August 1992 Jahn's bold design came up the winner. When the Sony Center opened eight years later, it was a globally acclaimed triumph. That it all worked pretty much as planned points to another Thompson Center aftereffect--what Jahn learned from the problems he had there. As he told Blair Kamin in 2001, his experience over the past 18 years has made him much more aware of the importance of working closely with engineers and specialists to make sure a building not only looks good but works as well.

In 1998, Jahn entered another competition--for the design of IIT's new student center. Jahn's entry most directly evoked the legacy of Mies van der Rohe in a design that was transparent, spacious, and bright, but the prize went to Koolhaas, the newest wunderkind on the block. The school had still one more design contest up its sleeve, for new student housing, and Jahn won it.

Both competitions were part of efforts to revitalize a campus left moribund by decades of neglect, most notably in the "no-man's-land" that had evolved along State Street, five long blocks of surface parking lots, with the Green Line, louder than an overserved undergraduate, as its noise-spewing spine. The "State Street Vision" master plan for the campus looked to create a greater sense of community by overcoming the way the no-man's-land cut off the classrooms to the west from the residences a block east.

The new dorms weren't actually built by IIT, but by the nonprofit IIT State Street Corporation, a 501(c)(3) corporation with its own set of directors. It financed the project by issuing $28.6 million in bonds, to be paid back from the revenue the dorms generate. About 60 percent of the 366 beds are currently leased, with the figure expected to rise to 95 percent by the time students return in September.

State Street Village will help IIT bring its on-campus population up to 3,200 students--or 60 percent of enrollees--by finally offering something more appealing than the antiquated dorms built by Mies in the 50s. Those were designed "in the old style," says Donna Robertson, "with the bathroom down the hall. The direction of campus housing these days is toward apartment-style living and singles."

The old dorms, for two people, are about 16 by 11 feet. Those at State Street Village are almost double that size and include a shared bathroom. There are also apartment units, where living space is shared but each student has a separate bedroom. The additional space and up-to-date amenities come at a price, however--students will pay about 45 percent more than they do for the older, smaller dorm rooms.

From a distance the complex, stretching the entire 525-foot block between 33rd and 34th, can look a little monolithic, like an enormous gray breadbox. "It's six buildings that are actually three buildings that look like one building," says Robertson, but as you draw closer, you quickly begin to sense an openness and variety of texture.

What looks like a unified facade along State Street is actually an alternating sequence of stainless steel surfaces. On the front of the buildings it's a solid corrugated siding, but on the courtyards between them it becomes a perforated mesh. The mesh starts at the second floor, rising like sideburns along the edges of each courtyard, flush with the siding of the adjacent dorms. At the fourth floor, the screen stretches across the entire width of the courtyard, curving inward to shield it from noise, glare, and heat, then stretching back to meet the roofline of the shallower top floor.

The three buildings are each composed of two identical wings, north and south of an entry courtyard. Between the three buildings are two other courtyards, Jahn's "sally ports." For a fortress--or a prison--a sally port is a double-door system that keeps prisoners from escaping or enemy troops from flooding in. At State Street Village the sally port assumes a more benign function as a gateway: a full-height wall of clear glass with an open portal in the middle that allows students to walk through the building on their way to and from classes. The glass helps muffle the noise of the Green Line, and the absence of vertical mullions allows breezes to pass through the space between the panes. All the courtyards are landscaped.

Across 33rd Street, Koolhaas is protecting his student center from the el by placing it above the building in a $9 million tube. Jahn was determined to take another approach. "The building takes this positive attitude that the el is actually part of it," he says. "It's not its enemy."

It is, however, a rambunctiously noisy neighbor, a fact that had to be dealt with. Apartments and suites are insulated from direct exposure to the sound by a corridor of stairways, utility rooms, and spacious elevator lobbies that double as lounges. The back wall for the corridor is made of concrete and generous expanses of specially designed glass. "Sound is best reduced with a lot of mass," explains Jahn. "Normally in an insulating glass you have two panes of the same thickness of glass." Here, however, one pane is thicker than the other, "which adds more mass, and it has a considerable sound reduction.

"We wanted everybody to know that there is a train, because that makes this a special place. It's a challenge to turn something that is considered a negative, a disadvantage, into something positive, an asset. If students say, I live there, next to the el, that adds something to the experience, that adds speed, that adds mobility, and it can be associated with a certain uplifting feeling of freedom that's different than if you're just locked in a room by yourself." The el serves to animate the glass wall, especially on the third floor, which is almost at the same level as the trains running past.

Most buildings start out with grand ambitions only to have them compromised with cheaper materials and lesser amenities as costs inevitably rise above estimates. At State Street Village, Jahn started out with what was, for him, a fairly tight budget. He met its constraints by eliminating the added cost of the usual applied finishes, keeping the building as raw as possible.

"Look around here," Jahn says. "Everything you see is what's needed on the building, whether it's the facade, whether it's the screen, whether it's the steel or concrete....These are the things we need in a building, these are the most expensive things in a building, and often buildings cover them up, only to resort to cheap ceilings, to paint, to drywall--all the things which don't look good, don't wear well, don't stand up over time."

Within the dorms, concrete beams and ceilings are left exposed. Floors are concrete covered in a simple epoxy. Fixtures are stainless steel. Elevators and their mechanical workings are exposed in clear glass shafts.

Along the main facade on State Street, Jahn tempers the austerity with a bit of signature glitz. Although the building's structure is poured concrete, it's faced in that corrugated stainless steel, which is also being used by Koolhaas to clad his el tube, giving the two buildings a point of subtle visual unity. And although at times evoking a Quonset hut, the stainless steel of the dorms clearly satisfies Jahn's intention of alluding to "those streamlined objects of the 1930s art moderne, to speed and progress." Up on the terrace, Jahn looks down on the curving facade. "It's like looking at a train," he says, smiling.

Care has been taken to make the new dorms state-of-the art. Jahn himself designed much of the furniture--mostly framed in stainless steel with wood inlays--and the beds can be moved or stacked as bunks to free up more space. Windows can be opened. There are jacks for voice, high-speed data, and satellite TV in every room and wireless access throughout. Students will even be able to go to the laundry room's Web site to check if there's a washer available or if the machine drying their clothes has finished its cycle.

Residences are located on the first four floors. The fifth is devoted to additional lounges, complete with surround sound, 50-inch plasma TVs, and access to spacious rooftop terraces overlooking the campus to the west and with a spectacular view of the Loop to the north. The open spaces over the terraces alternate with the screens rising over the courtyards, providing a visual rhythm to the building's long expanse.

Jahn sees State Street Village as pointing out a way to revive the residential courtyard building, a genre that seems to have petrified with the brick apartment courts of the 1920s. "It's almost like a prototype for the new millennium," he says. "You could put them up along Diversey or Fullerton and have one or two apartments per floor--a new way of making a kind of urban living interspersed with open space."

That kind of thinking shows that Jahn's return to Chicago is more than a personal story, or a story about IIT. It's about retrieving the city's reputation for pathbreaking architecture. Twenty years ago people looked at how Jahn was working to move beyond the Miesian box and branded him glib and superficial. "Mies van der Rohe, in our time, warned against inventing a new architecture every Monday," wrote the Sun-Times's M.W. Newman in 1985. "Jahn has flipped nearly everything around in pursuit of hip happiness every day of the week."

Today it's Koolhaas the critics have cast as the irreverent prankster and Jahn who's starting to look like the traditionalist. Of State Street Village he says, "The significant challenge in this building is...how you confront Mies, facing Crown Hall and the Mies campus. Our philosophy came out of the Miesian idiom, and trying to put it on a different level." It's Jahn who now echoes Mies's warning against the dangers of novelty, saying that progress in architecture is measured not so much "by new forms and new styles," but "by more of a scientific approach, adhering to physics, in terms of the laws of buildings, how they operate, use of natural resources, and the integration of architecture and engineering."

But a sense of tradition has always lurked beneath Jahn's shiny surfaces. Today when you stand in the atrium of the Thompson Center, you don't think of the early disasters or of superficial glitz but of the way Jahn rethought the classical domed rotunda of Henry Ives Cobb's 1905 federal building to give the city one of its grandest public spaces, bright and energetic, as optimistic and open as we would like to believe our government can be.

Jahn looks on his long period of inactivity here not so much as a personal setback but as a lost decade in Chicago architecture. "I think it's not just me if I say this now: I think there's a whole feeling in the city, in the architectural community, that Chicago is not where it used to be."

Yet he refrains from joining the chorus of architects who say it's become almost impossible to do good work in America. "I think you've got to take responsibility for what you do. It wasn't easy to do this building. We almost got thrown off the job once because they thought this was going to be too expensive."

That may be Jahn the politician talking, learning to hold his tongue rather than ruffle the feathers of developers who, though they've shunned him in the past, might still be converted into future clients. If State Street Village avoids any operational meltdowns, if it's embraced by the students who make it their home, it may finally put to rest Jahn's bad rap as an architect whose designs come with too heavy a burden of risk. He might even develop a reputation as a great architect at the peak of his powers, capable of bold visions but also having both the maturity to keep them workable and the accumulated experience to steer them clear of the rocks and successfully into port.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.

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