The New Modernism of Helmut Jahn
Less Flash, More Fusion
Jahn's work is less about flash, and more about fusion — the fusion of architecture and engineering. Jahn and one of his chief collaborators, German civil and structural engineer Werner Sobek, call this fusion "archi-neering." Walking the high wire between these two disciplines is what makes Jahn's latest work harder to classify, but more powerful.
In archi-neering, the architect and engineers genuinely collaborate, conjuring buildings that respond to the program and the technology of advanced materials and systems. But this is not a technocratic approach to architecture. Rather, it is using technology and science in the service of architecture that expresses a certain zeitgeist, and also meeting the needs of those who inhabit these structures.
This is not technology for technology's sake, nor an aesthetic of "high-tech," but materials, equipment, and methods of environmental control that seek to become invisible. Jahn notes that the ultimate building would be one that provides all the creature comforts virtually undetected — an architecture that serves and vanishes, simultaneously.
The two projects shown here, the Sony Center in Berlin and the HALO Headquarters building in Niles, Illinois, reveal Jahn as an architect committed to exploring the material and perceptual possibilities of creating architecture in a new millennium, one with "a simplicity of form and construction and a clear expression of its component parts and purpose," as he describes it.
Talking to Jahn, you hear little if anything about "style" or even "design." Now collaborating with structural, mechanical, and environmental engineers, along with physicists and materials manufacturers, Jahn is creating buildings that push the limits of glazing technology, environmental systems, and urban place-making.
Unlike that of his modern predecessors, Jahn's work today is more evolutionary and less revolutionary. The progress is incremental, building from project to project, as new technical ideas are tested. This is in marked contrast to how most architects operate, which is to find safe solutions and then stick with them.
Jahn looks forward, but always with the benefit of what he has learned in projects past. Study his work, and you will discover the ways in which he is creating architecture that is experientially rich, complex, ever changing.
The Magic in Glazing
Jahn has a passion for transparency. For him, transparency and lightness are conceptual and intellectual ideas that can be realized with new materials.
He recognizes that of all the materials we use today to create architecture, glass perhaps offers the greatest promise of technological advancement. Glazing films, frit patterns, higher shading coefficients, "switchable" glazing that goes from clear to opaque at the touch of a button, insulated glazing, tints, structural glass mullions — these are just some of the advancements that make glass a versatile, contemporary material.
Jahn strives for an architecture of clarity and order. He wants his buildings to be comprehensible and rational. For these purposes, glass is the material of choice. It allows for spaces to be layered, to be read as overlapping realms that slide past each other.
He pulls the building's structural frame back from the facade so that the glass is read as a thin, form-covering scrim. New materials also demand a contemporary approach to fabrication and assembly.
Jahn points out that traditional materials such as wood, brick, concrete, and steel demand that the builder exhibit a certain craft. New advances in materials such as glass, textiles, and plastic require the expertise of specialists in engineering, physics, chemistry, and computer science, and are assembled with far less craft.
Glass reveals, and it makes us aware of the elements of architecture that are normally hidden from view. We experience them in new ways. A good example is the glass elevators in the Sony Center and HALO headquarters. These are exquisitely detailed works of architecture, their workings revealed to us as they whisk up and down, like kinetic sculpture.
Suddenly you are aware of elevators as never before. They move you through space in ways that are breathtaking, to vantage points which reveal other parts of the building. The mystery of the elevator is gone, but in its place Jahn gives us a new appreciation and joy of its function. In this architect's hands, the effect is magical.
An architecture of glass is an architecture of light. Le Corbusier described architecture as "the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of masses brought together in light." Jahn speaks of his buildings as glowing from within, possessing a luminescence. He strives to create architecture that emits light, architecture with a brilliant heart. Light becomes the essence of the design. The Sony Center has this quality, particularly its office tower, which hums with an inner brilliance.
Building the Public Realm
Urban place-making also assumes an important role in Jahn's work. He recognizes that the function of new urban centers is different from those of previous generations. Today, urban place-making is linked more to entertainment and product consumption.
Less civic events, they are corporate spectacles. This kind of urban place-making is fraught with concern — the surrender of the public realm to private corporate control is a depressing trend. Jahn's approach has been to bring back some sense of the public, the communal, in this corporate landscape.
The Sony Center is Jahn's most ambitious urban place-making project to date. Seven buildings define the center's urban edges, and Jahn has created passages in all directions for pedestrians to infiltrate the center. The passages not only allow a physical connection, but a visual one from across the street or down the block — glimpses of what is inside to pique curiosity.
One "arrives" at the center, surrounded by a tighter circle of buildings that combine cultural, business, and residential uses. This space is open yet environmentally tempered by an elliptical umbrella roof that provides shade and protection from the elements.
Made of steel cable, fiberglass membrane, and glass, Sony's "crown" is a landmark on the skyline that glows in different colors at night. Throughout the day, the heart of Sony's public spaces is alive with people, water, and light.
Jahn notes with obvious enthusiasm that this is the very best time to be an architect, an exciting period of new environmental technology, materials, methods of fabrication, redefinition of urban places. A willing heir to the spirit of innovation that marks the best of modernism, Helmut Jahn is taking architecture in fresh and important directions.
Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, an associate with Steven Winter Associates, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.
This article is excerpted from Murphy/Jahn: Six Works, copyright © 2001, available from Images Publishing.
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