'Dashing Star of an Architect' Helmut Jahn Dies in Biking Accident at 81

Helmut Jahn's famous designs can be seen in cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Berlin

Helmut Jahn
Helmut Jahn. Photo: Frank Rumpenhorst/picture alliance via Getty

Prolific architect Helmut Jahn, who designed some of the world's most recognizable buildings, died on Saturday in a bike accident. He was 81.

Jahn, a German native who moved to the United States in the 1960s, was on his bicycle in Campton Hills, Illinois when he rode through a stop sign at an intersection, Campton Hills Police Chief Steven Millar said in a news release obtained by PEOPLE.

He was then struck by two vehicles heading in opposite directions, and was pronounced dead at the scene. The driver of one of the two vehicles was hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries, according to Millar.

Jahn's skyscraping designs have been a fixture of city skylines for more than five decades, and some of his most notable works include the J. Edgar Hoover Building and 1999 K Street in Washington, D.C., Liberty Place in Philadelphia, Thyssenkrupp Tower in Rottweil, Germany, the Sony Center in Berlin, the James R. Thompson Building in Chicago and the colorful United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport.

Helmut Jahn's James R. Thompson Center
James R. Thompson Center. Raymond Boyd/Getty

When his Messeturm opened in Frankfurt in the late '80s, it was the tallest building in Europe, according to the Chicago Tribune.

"Jahn was one of the most inventive Chicago architects whose impact on the city — from the skyline to the O'Hare tunnel — will never be forgotten," Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot wrote on Twitter. "His architectural footprint will be felt & seen across the globe for generations to come. I extend heartfelt prayers to his family."

Born in Nuremberg, Germany, Jahn graduated from the Technische Hochschule in Munich before moving to the U.S. to study architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, according to his website.

In 1967, he began working at C.F. Murphy Associates, which he went on to buy in 1983 and rename after himself, according to a 1985 GQ cover story.

Of his early days, Jahn told the magazine he was "just an average guy," and was inspired to pursue a career in architecture by the drabness of Germany's post-war buildings.

"I thought I could make better buildings than the buildings I saw, which wasn't hard," he said.

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Blair Kamin, the Tribune's former architecture critic, told the outlet Jahn was a "dashing star of an architect" whose contributions to his field were immeasurable.

"He was renowned as much for his persona as for his architecture, but his architecture was always exceptional," Kamin said. "And, as time went on, he was regarded as less of a 'Flash Gordon' character and more of a modernist master."

Though Jahn was not without controversy — his Thompson Building was said to be "inefficient to operate" and "a drain on state finances," while the so-called Chicago Seven that he was a part of was described by the Tribune as "a contentious group of architects who rebelled in the 1970s against what they saw as the reductionist modernist narrative" — Jahn welcomed the critiques.

"The greatest part of your life is your work. If you do better in your work, you have a better life," he told GQ in 1985. "People always boo [John] McEnroe and he always wins. Right? I don't mind someone criticizing because he does just the same favor as someone who praises you. Controversy is good. I'd rather have people talk about our buildings than say, 'Well, that's just another building that I didn't see.'"

Jahn was married to Deborah Lampe, and they had a son, Evan, the Tribune reported.

In addition to his designs, he also taught at University of Illinois Chicago Campus, and was the Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Design at Harvard University, the Davenport Visiting Professor of Architectural Design at Yale University and Thesis Professor at IIT, according to his website.

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