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Obituary of post-tower architect Helmut Jahn: He built the landmark of the new Bonn

Obituary of post-tower architect Helmut Jahn : He built the landmark of the new Bonn

The Post Tower in Bonn, Frankfurt's Messeturm and Berlin's Sony Center: On the death of the great architect Helmut Jahn, who became famous in Germany and internationally above all for his high-rise buildings.

"I actually only wanted to come here for a year," architect Helmut Jahn said some time ago in a lecture in Chicago. However, this was to turn into half a century. A period in which he was to leave his mark on architecture worldwide with new forms and bold technical designs from America. In Bonn, he set himself a monument with the Post Tower, which opened in 2002, and in his Chicago office he created the plans for Terminal 2 of Cologne/Bonn Airport (2004). In the past 30 years, he has built, among others, the Frankfurt Trade Fair Tower (1991), the Bayer headquarters in Leverkusen (2002) and the spectacular Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, including the Bahn Tower (2000), which looks like a little brother to the Bonn Tower. Helmut Jahn, who was sometimes referred to as "Tower Father" Jahn because of the many skyscrapers he built, shaped the architectural face of Germany like few others. On May 8, Helmut Jahn died at the age of 81 in a bicycle accident in a Chicago suburb. After failing to obey a stop sign, he was struck by two cars and fatally injured.

Jahn was born on January 4, 1940 in Zirndorf near Nuremberg. He received his technical training at the Technical University in Munich. For postgraduate studies, he went to Chicago in 1966, where he met the then already 80-year-old Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe, who was to have a decisive influence on his work. Both were exponents of a resolute modernism, and the traces of his teacher are still clearly visible in their early works.

Jahn quickly made a career for himself in Chicago. He became an assistant to Gene Summers and an associate at the Chicago architectural firm C. F. Murphy Associates, where he rose to be president in 1982. His first major work in the U.S. was the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, completed in 1974, followed by his first skyscraper, the Xerox Center in Chicago. With a little imagination, one can recognize a sheet of paper coming out of a copier in the 152.4-meter tower. Jahn's signature is also expressed in the glass-dominated exterior of the building. Glass and steel characterized Jahn's designs throughout his life.

Visionary and innovator

Born in Franconia, Jahn was a visionary and innovator in his field. "Those who do not open themselves to the new do not make any progress," he once said in an interview with the "Süddeutsche Zeitung." "Should the world stand still? This question applies to medicine, technology, art as well as building. Do we still want to live in mud huts today?“

Nevertheless, his architecture never seemed provocative. The jagged formal language formulated by Frank Gehry in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles is alien to Jahn's buildings. As a Bauhaus heir, his aesthetic focus was more on clarity and functionality. For him, buildings were first and foremost objects of utility. "Architects are not artists," he said again and again.

The tallest building in North Rhine-Westphalia

However, his work was therefore not uncontroversial. In Bonn, for example, opponents of the Post Tower were concerned about the continuity of Bonn's cityscape, in whose silhouette no further high-rise building should have a place next to the "Langer Eugen". Some also saw the microclimate at risk. With its 162.5 meters, the glass tower towered over not only the "Langer Eugen" but also the Cologne Cathedral on completion and is now the tallest building in North Rhine-Westphalia. And the landmark of the new Bonn, visible from afar. The tower, which gets its significant shape from the two offset circular segments, was not only aesthetically but also technically forward-looking right from the planning stage. As a low-energy high-rise, it already met demands for climate neutrality two decades ago. In the Bonn headquarters of Deutsche Post/DHL, sophisticated air-conditioning technology eliminates the need for a costly air-conditioning system with high energy consumption. "The tower breathes in the wind," is how Jahn almost poetically described the building's air-conditioning technology.

Helmut Jahn died on May 8, 2021, in Campton Hills (near Chicago), in a bike accident.

Original text: Bernhard Hartmann

Translation: Mareike Graepel