Before the architect Helmut Jahn designed United Airlines Terminal 1 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in the late 1980s, travelers coming or going from one of the world’s greatest architectural cities made a quotidian trudge through a boring portal. Jahn replaced that grim trajectory with a sensually thrilling explosion of light, sound and excitement, designing a rhapsodic experience that emulated the great railroad hubs that once defined Chicago. He put the romance back in travel, even for the humblest traveler, signaled Chicago’s cultural centrality toward of the dawn of the 21st century and created a much-copied model for new airports all over the world.
But that hardly was the only achievement of an ebullient and massively successful German American “star-chitect” who was born near Nuremberg, Germany, in 1940 and arrived in Chicago in 1966 to study at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He didn’t formally graduate but would go on to play a central role in his home city’s singular architectural story.
Jahn, who was 81 and died Saturday from injuries suffered in a cycling accident outside west suburban St. Charles near Chicago, would become its preeminent designer of high-profile public spaces and a full-throttle Chicago celebrity replete with the Porsche Carreras, big yachts, bespoke tailoring and all the other accessories of youthful 20th century fame.