The Starchitect vs. the homeless?

I used to think “Starchitect” was a pejorative word. Now it’s used in marketing! Seen in a Chicago Tribune ad like this, to me it seems provincial and unfortunate.

But I’m glad to see Helmut Jahn’s name restored in Chicago. He was much-criticized here after his bathroom-colored, post-modern State of Illinois building opened in 1985. After that, and partly due to heating and cooling problems, Jahn’s talents were under-used here in his adopted hometown. Instead he designed fine, well-made, interesting structures mostly in Asia and Europe, for example Bayer AG’s new Group headquarters in Germany.


All of the work abroad by Helmut Jahn that I’ve seen is more daring, more exciting than

this new tower, 600 N. Fairbanks, that he’s designed for Chicago near the lake, near the river.

Why is Jahn’s work abroad even more interesting than it is in his adopted home town of Chicago, supposedly the world’s center of Modernism?

His

1980’s work at O’Hare airport, the terminal connecting tunnel, the airport subway stop and the United Terminal are all very nice and display his design flair.

And he has a fine recent building in Chicago –


his train-shaped steel, glass and concrete dorm at the Illinois Institute of Technology, across the street from Mies’ Crown Hall.

And very soon a similar steel, glass and concrete train-shaped form,

Near North Apartments, 96-units for homeless people, will open very near to where Chicago’s notorious public housing project Cabrini-Green recently stood.

I’d love to write the following story, I hope I’ll have time. I did a few interviews for it last night. Many of the homeless people Jahn’s SRO is meant to serve, well, when you talk to them, and ask them what kind of a house they’d like to live in, they describe a typical suburban dwelling, with pitched roof and fireplace, a few windows; when you show them Jahn’s building they don’t really “get” it. “It’s not really what I dreamed of” is what I heard, along with, “why did he use concrete on the inside?” The argument reprises society’s battles against Modernism! Stay tuned for more.
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