Back To School - by Lynn Becker

Helmut Jahn returns to Chicago with his bold new dorms at IIT. (originally published in slightly altered form in the Chicago Reader, August 1, 2003)


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“The undisputed crown prince of Chicago architecture,” is what they were calling Helmut Jahn twenty years ago. His wife, Deborah, had transformed the hard-working but scruffy German émigré into a glamorous fashion plate worthy of a GQ profile, and now 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 that was shaped like a cascading waterfall.

It would be a short reign. By the end of the 1980's, the prince had turned into a frog. Local commissions began to dry up, and Jahn became an exile in his own
all photographs (unless otherwise indicated): Doug Snower

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 YCMA. 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, officially proclaimed “Helmut Jahn” day by Mayor Daley. Jahn is back, not just in Chicago, but at the Bronzeville campus of IIT where he had 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 of 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 new State of Illinois Center. Jahn presented the governor with three models, hedging his bets by including two conservative ringers. Thompson went straight for the most 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 an accumulating swell of problems. When the bids for the building's massive quantities of glass came in several times over estimate, the elegant and crystalline translucent blue, gray and white glass 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. It saved money, but cut 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 the July of 1985, temperatures inside reached 90 degrees. Here and there, beach umbrellas popped up over employee desks, both as a grim joke and to shield their computer monitors from the glare of the morning sun, unimpeded by the compromise, single-pane windows. A festival of acrimonious litigation followed, including the state suing Murphy/Jahn and 12 other contractors for negligence, malpractice and breach of contract, and Murphy/Jahn counter suing to contend it had nothing to do with ventilation system's design.

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 1980's, 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 completely at odds with Jahn's own 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 came into any proximity to 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 Jahn's star was dimming in Chicago, it was on the rise in Europe. An executive at Sony, which had just contracted to build an $800 million mixed-used complex in newly reunified Berlin, remembered being so impressed with the Thompson Center during a trip to Chicago he made sure Jahn was on the shortlist of seven international architectural firms invited to compete for the project, and in August of 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 another Thompson Center aftereffect - how Jahn has 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 advertised, as well.


Back at IIT 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, now the newest wunderkind on the block. The school had still one more design contest up its sleeve, for new student housing, and when the winner was announced, Helmut Jahn's long Chicago losing streak had finally been broken.

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 over-served undergraduate, as it's noise-spewing spine. The “State Street Vision” master plan for the campus, from Dirk Lohan, Mies' grandson, 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, State Street Village, weren't actually built by IIT, but by the non-profit IIT State Street Corporation, a 501-C corporation with its own set of directors. It financed the project by issuing $28,635,000 of bonds, to be paid back from the revenue the dorms generate. About 60% of the 366 beds are currently leased, with the figure expected to rise to 95% by the time students return in September.

State Street Village is designed to help IIT realize its goal of increasing on-campus population, bringing it up to 3,200 students this fall - 60% of campus enrollment - by finally offering something more appealing than the antiquated dorms built by Mies van der Rohe in the 1950's. Those were designed “in the old style,” says Donna Robertson, “with the bathroom down the hall. The trajectory or the direction of the campus housing these days is towards 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 in 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% more than they do for the older, smaller dorms.

From a distance Jahn's State Street Village complex, stretching an 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 single, unified façade along State Street is actually an alternating sequence of stainless steel surfaces. On the dorm buildings, themselves, it's a solid corrugated siding, but on the courtyards between the
buildings, it becomes a perforated mesh that's flush with the siding on the buildings. The mesh starts at the second floor, rising like sideburns along the edges of each courtyard. At the fourth floor, the screen stretches across
the entire width of the courtyard (the mullet to the sideburns), curving inwards to shield the courtyard from noise, glare and heat, and stretching back to meet the roofline of the half-floor on 5.

The three buildings that Robertson refers to are each composed of two identical wings, north and south of an entry courtyard. Between the three buildings are two other courtyards, dubbed “sally ports” by Jahn. For a fortress - or a prison - a sally port is a double?door system to keep prisoners from escaping or enemy troops from flooding in. At State Street Village, the sally port assumes its 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 back and forth 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 protects his Student Center from the L by placing it above the building in a $9,000,000 tube. Jahn was determined to take another approach. “The building takes this positive attitude that the L 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 of the L by a corridor of stairways, utility rooms, and student 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,” says Jahn, “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 L, 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 L serves to animate the back glass wall, especially on the 3rd 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 façade, whether it's the screen, whether it's the steel or concrete. Everything is left only as much as it needs to be. Because 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.”

So, within the dorms, the concrete beams and ceilings are left exposed. Floors are concrete covered in a simply epoxy. Fixtures are stainless steel. The elevators and their mechanical workings are exposed in clear glass shafts.

Along the main façade on State Street, Jahn tempers the austerity with a bit of his signature glitz. Although the building has a structure of poured-in-place concrete, it's faced with that corrugated stainless steel, which is also used by Koolhaas to clad his L tube, giving the two buildings a point of subtle visual unity. And although at times it evokes memories of a Quonset hut, the stainless steel of the dorms clearly evokes Jahn's intention of alluding to “those streamlined objects of the 1930's Art Moderne, to speed and progress.” Up on the terrace, Jahn looks down on the curving façade. “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 even stacked as bunks to free up more space. Windows can be opened to let in outside air. There's voice, high-speed data, and satellite cable TV jacks 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 make up the first four floors, overlooking the courtyards. The fifth is devoted to additional lounges; complete with surround-sound, 50" plasma TV's, and access to spacious, open rooftop terraces, overlooking the campus to the west, and with a spectacular view of the Loop skyline in the distance 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 1920's. “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 path?breaking architecture.

Twenty years ago, people looked at the way Jahn was working to move beyond the Miesian box, and branded him as glib and superficial “Mies van der Rohe, in our time, warned against inventing a new architecture every Monday,” wrote the Sun-Times M.W. Newman in 1985. “Jahn has flipped nearly everything around in pursuit of hip happiness every day of the week.”

Today, it's Rem Koolhaas that critics have cloaked in the irreverent prankster's motley, and Jahn who is 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 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, in contemporary terms, the classical domed rotunda of the Henry Ives Cobb's federal building of 1905 to give the city one of it's 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 to join 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 a future client. But 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 bundle of risk. He might actually be in danger becoming to be seen as a great architect at the peak of his powers, capable of coming up with the 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. We can only hope.


© Copyright 2003-2004 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.