In the last few years something has happened to architects’ willingness to strive for originality. The boldest visions now often come from the old guard of architecture - and frankly, I enjoy conversations with them much more. The current insistence on having common ground pushed so many younger architects into a zombie-like copycat state of mind. But to me, common ground means not to think alike – then there is space for discourse.
My most recent conversation with Helmut Jahn at his Chicago office is a case in point. “Architecture is all about going with your gut. I prefer when form follows force rather than function,” he told me. His distinguished career has been one of twists and turns, and he is not planning to give up exploring new ideas any time soon. His 1985 quadrant-in-plan Thompson Center reinvented a mundane government typology into a soaring public place, with its curved colored glass facade decisively welcoming a postmodernist period to Chicago (one we thought had finished, but now seems to be ongoing, encompassing all of post-Modern movements as its mere shades and variations.) Jahn’s architecture shook and modernized a number of global cities, and with time and experience, what began as a rebellion against Mies’s “less is more” modus operandi matured into nuanced, measured, though unquestionably gutsy, production of towers, airports, convention centers, headquarters, and, most importantly, public spaces. As Jahn himself says, “...anything you don’t need is a benefit. Not only you have to have less things but with the things you have left you have to do more.”
Helmut Jahn: …There is so much banality that’s being built these days…
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Wasn’t it always the case?
HJ: No, not really. Developers who would love to do buildings are no longer around. I used to know developers who loved going to a construction site and put their boots in the mud. Now it is all about business and they don’t even start before returning their investment. Building now is all about profit-making; everything is so calculated. There is no emotion, no imagination, no invention. There are so many simplistic one-liner buildings…
VB: I think there are architects who will always produce good buildings no matter what the circumstances may be. Let’s talk about yours. Some critics call you “romantic modernist” and refer to your architecture as “romantic high-tech.” And you said the following: “We do not construct decoration, we decorate construction.” How would you define the intention of your architecture?
HJ: Well, these ideas go back to the times right after Mies, shortly after I just started working at C.F. Murphy Associates, the predecessor of Murphy/Jahn, and designing my first independent buildings from mid-1970s. Then everyone was still working within Miesean dogmatic “less is more” mode. So, when my early buildings started expressing structure and color they immediately attracted attention. Then in 1980, the Xerox Center here in Chicago, the one that curves around a corner, was built. It became a real breakthrough. That led to a whole series of distinctive buildings, particularly towers in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Singapore, and the most iconic became 63-story Messeturm in Frankfurt. But that was just one period that led to the next one, which started in the mid-1990s.
VB: What caused that shift and how did your work evolve after that?
HJ: I met Werner Sobek, a brilliant German architect and structural engineer. After I met him my buildings became known for what we called Archineering, a collaboration between an architect and engineer at an early stage of design. It was not so much about the aesthetics but about performance and how buildings are constructed and the use of the materials.
VB: When did you first meet Sobek?
HJ: In 1994; our first collaboration was on the design of the Bangkok Airport’s roof. SONY Center in Berlin followed. Sobek was the first person to tell me, “Helmut, you cannot do this.” Now he often tells me, “You don’t need me. You know your structures.” We work very closely, and we exchange our roles all the time – the architect thinks like a structural engineer and the engineer thinks like an architect. That collaboration produced new kind of buildings. The Post Tower, built in Bonn in 2003, was a marker, after which the work became more restrained and refined.
These buildings perform better, particularly since we started our collaboration with Matthias Schuler, environmental engineer from Stuttgart. His pioneering company Transsolar Energietechnik provides consulting services on developing sustainable design strategies for buildings. Our first project together was the Bangkok Airport where the local engineer said that our building didn’t work environmentally. That’s when together with Sobek we interviewed Schuler. He’s been on board ever since. Architects need to push for innovation, but today it is so much harder to be inventive because there are so many ways of doing things that are already established. And since our clients are no longer supportive of innovation it is that much more difficult.
VB: That goes back to where we started.
HJ: Well, if we point to 15 best buildings in my career, they are all a direct result of working with good clients. Now, every time I propose anything of interest the first thing I hear from them, “But isn’t it expensive?” And that is reflected in all the recent buildings – so many of them are cookie-cutter solutions. And most will not age well. Obviously, there are exceptions. But we no longer have clients who support an attitude of making something new. Most clients are afraid to run into a risk of making a mistake. And that’s the biggest handicap in terms of making progress.
VB: Back in mid-1980s you said, “Today we don’t have any accepted principles. All the rules, all the styles, are either dead or under observation as to whether they’ll survive. For me, it’s exciting and exhilarating. It’s a kind of freedom we have to enjoy.” You don’t seem to agree with this statement today. Do you still feel that all styles are dead and that there is freedom to choose your own direction?
HJ: Unfortunately, we no longer have this freedom of possibilities and it is not the right climate when you can sell this attitude. Today, clients are big corporations, big banks and big developers. They all want to be safe. So, they prefer to deal with these enormous architectural conglomerates that are led by collectives, not individuals who have an attitude toward architecture. They have their offices everywhere, they have their own engineers, and there is no risk. Of course, there are exceptions, but they dominate.Doing what is easy will never produce architecture that is new or progressive.
VB: Yet, there are still a number of quixotic individual architects who fight against all odds.
HJ: Sure, I am fighting, and we still get jobs. But it is much more difficult. And I don’t build as much anymore. We have just a third of architects compare to what we used to.
VB: You said you are fighting for good architecture and you’ve been a fighter ever since you came to Chicago from Germany back in 1966, one year after graduating from the Technical University of Munich.
HJ: I came to study at the Illinois Institute of Technology on a Rotary Club scholarship. One of the first assignments was to design a particular courthouse; I refused. I didn’t want any constrains. Then for the course in visual training we were asked to bring black and white paper. I brought one of each color; maybe it was not black and white enough, so my professor said, “This paper is not black and not white. Get the right colors.” And I said, “I am not getting any more paper! That’s not what I came here for.” [Laughs.]
VB: What did you go there for?
HJ: I had no idea. I was just one year out of school. I was this rebellious kid. What did I know? And then George Danforth, the director of Architecture School at the IIT, suggested to me that I take a part-time job at an office. That’s how I started working with Gene Summers at C.F. Murphy Associates. I remember how carefully I studied drawings for some of the finished buildings at the office. Who does that anymore? Now everyone is just looking at the computer screen. And where are the older architects with real experience? It seems that mostly young architects, fresh out of school, are doing all the work. But people have to learn something before they are given real responsibilities.
I remember how in one of the design reviews at Yale I was on a jury with James Stirling and one student who had a very weak project attacked me for one of my buildings, so Jim said, “Helmut, let me take this one.” And he tore that guy apart. He said, “What the hell do you know about design? We know how to design. But you have to learn something.” Well, I was never a good teacher because I am not a good listener. I have no patience. [Laughs.]
VB: Many architects compare their offices to schools. How do you teach your staff here?
HJ: I work with people who I think have the talent, so it’s worthwhile to work with them. You need many people to design buildings. So, I rely on many people here. I make endless sketches and ask my designers to build numerous models. I like to think that I teach by example.
VB: When you started your career, you were very rebellious of Miesian approach that you saw as restrictive. But, as you mentioned, over the years, your work became more refined. Would you say that now his work has more relevance to you?
HJ: I don’t try to analyze my own work that way. That’s for others to decide. I just go forward. I am now designing a new tower in Berlin, Europa Center 2, which is going to be almost three times the height of what is currently the tallest building in the city. The building is very simple, but l made many dozens of models to arrive at that form. And what you have here I picked up from some of my previous projects. Yet, you can’t just carry ideas from project to project. Every skyline is different, every site has different conditions. Every project is a response to very specific conditions. Architecture is not just about a pure form-giving. Now we are experimenting with new elevator technology that brings new exciting possibilities to our tower design. Also, the use of new shading systems that can be imbedded into glass panels brings new possibilities. The process is endless.
What is true about Mies is that you can only achieve excellence with less, not with more. I understood it much more when I met Sobek. Ever since we met I started to feel that I went back to school. Before, I was accustomed to figure out things on my own or relying on what my engineers told me, but with him it was different. From him I don’t just learn a solution, I learn the reason for that solution. He sits right next to me when we design and when I draw a truss he would say, “This part does not want to be there.” So, the work became more responsive to structure. Look at the United Airlines Terminal One at O’Hare that I did back in 1986. Sobek would never let me do that. Now I think that that roof with an arch and a straight kink is something like high-tech baroque.
Architecture is about space and light, but I prefer when form follows force rather than function.
VB: Could you comment on your Thompson Center. Now, that its future is uncertain, how do you see its place in the history of Chicago?
HJ: The Thompson Center was a government building turned into a public place. When it opened in 1985, it made history because it became a new public place for the city. It was a new way to integrate private space with the public space. Of course, it was never a well-managed public place for political reasons. It is not even open on weekends and there are so many restrictions where people can and can’t go. Still, in the future, I can imagine it to be used by a private company such as Google.
The original idea was to open the building from every side. I started with a solid block. But I felt that the building must have a public plaza, so one day I cut the corner off on an angle and curved it to represent the traditional dome of government buildings. When we enclosed the atrium, I felt that building lost something. That’s why 15 years later while designing the SONY Center in Berlin the atrium there became the open courtyard. I remember when the chairman of SONY viewed the model and said, “Mr. Jahn, where are the doors?” I said, “There are no doors.” And he said, "But then everybody can come in.” So, I said, “You got it!” [Laughs.] That’s what we tried to do, and he never said anything else.
VB: So, it was the Thompson Center that pushed the SONY Center.
HJ: Absolutely. SONY is the new kind of urban space for new society and new preferences. But you can also look at history and learn from there as well. Look at public piazza in Sienna; that is an inspiration for SONY. One project pushes the next.
VB: Let’s talk about this evolution. Thompson of 1985 pushed SONY of 2000 and what did SONY push you to do next?
HJ: We designed a mixed-use complex with shopping center, hotels, apartments, and entertainment for the central plaza in downtown Jebel Ali in Dubai in 2008 but the project was stopped by the financial crisis at the time. That project took SONY to a much bigger urban scale. I think the period from 1995 to 2008 was the most interesting period for my architecture. There was a good push from clients to produce exciting projects.
VB: It is emblematic what you are saying because this timeframe coincided exactly with the iconic period when clients demanded from their architects to build very distinctive, signature-style structures.
HJ: Well, look at corporate architecture. It was always iconic. But over the last decade clients are no longer interested in that. Look at Google or Facebook. They have suburban campuses and in New York they occupy existing buildings. They no longer consider architecture an artform. All they want is to have a roof over their heads. And they are no longer concerned with their image; in the past these people would wear stylish suits and now they run around in t-shirts. So many corporations no longer build new buildings; they just rent generic space from developers.
VB: How can architects fight back?
HJ: Well, architecture is so difficult. It is easy to talk but very hard to do it. You know, good architecture is all about going with your gut. You have something on your mind and you just must go ahead and do it. It is important to keep asking these questions – is it the best way of doing something? Is there another way? You can’t stop at searching for a better solution just like architects did after Mies. They really thought he has achieved absolute perfection and from then on, we knew how to do architecture once and for all. But we’ve got to go forward!
VB: You said, “Transparency is not the same as looking straight through a building: it’s not just a physical idea, it’s also an intellectual one.” Could you elaborate on this?
HJ: Look, there is no building that’s transparent. Every building has things in it. For me, transparency was always about the layers you put in. The idea is to read from one layer to the next. I also like the idea of seeing buildings differently from every side.
VB: And finally, could you comment on another one of your quotes, “I strive for an architecture, from which nothing can be taken away.”
HJ: Anything you don’t need is a benefit. Not only you have to have less things but with the things you have left you have to do more.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985(TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which originally premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.