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Weekend Interview: Evan Jahn On Jahn Without Helmut

This series gets into the heads of the decision-makers of CRE, the people shaping the industry by setting investment strategy, workplace design, diversity initiatives and more.

When Evan Jahn was growing up, his dad, famous architect Helmut Jahn, was insistent he not become an architect. 

And he didn’t. Jahn instead embarked on a 15-year career as a sustainability consultant for the property industry, including stints at Forum Studio and Clayco, and co-founding Ecker Green, a green office consultancy. 

But that hasn’t stopped him from landing in the family business. Jahn started sharing an office with his father a few years ago while doing some of his own real estate development. That evolved to Jahn working at the eponymous architecture firm and being positioned behind the scenes as Helmut’s successor. When Helmut died unexpectedly in a bicycle accident in May 2021, that plan was accelerated, and Jahn took over as president of the 60-year-old global architecture firm Jahn shortly thereafter.

Jahn President Evan Jahn with his wife and kids at Almressi on a recent ski vacation to Aspen, Colorado.

The company’s current projects include EDEN Tower in Frankfurt, Germany, the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Wisconsin and two high-profile projects in Chicago: 1000M and the proposed adaptive reuse of the James R. Thompson Center, which was designed by Helmut. Other projects the firm is known for include the United Terminal at O'Hare International Airport, the Sony Center in Berlin — which it also originally designed and is now reimagining — and Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.

As Jahn comes up on two years at the helm of the firm, he sat down with Bisnow to discuss the abrupt way he came into the role, carrying on his father’s legacy while also evolving the firm, how Google’s layoffs affect its future at the Thompson Center and more.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Bisnow: You have talked about how intimately aware you were of Jahn’s operations even before joining it. What has surprised you so far about the job or about the company now that you're running it?

Jahn: My father was always vocal that I should never go into architecture. And let this be a lesson to every parent that when you tell your kids not to do something, obviously it makes the light burn stronger.

And yeah, I was a drawer when I was younger, but it was never a level of proficiency that was screaming that I should be an architect or something. But I enjoy the creative process. And growing up in the creative household with my father being an architect, my mother being an interior designer, I got a very immersive education in design. It was inculcated in our whole family dynamic. And Helmut always had a pen in his hand and was always writing notes or sketching or doing something related to work.

So that set a precedent for how much I knew running this firm would entail, that it's an immersive, all-encompassing devotion to keeping this practice at the forefront of an industry that's always evolving.

I always knew running Jahn was going to be something that was pushing me, and it has. I mean, it's also the fact that it came about in such an abrupt manner. I joined the firm shortly before Helmut passed away, and there was the intention of having the succession of the firm. But I was essentially five-plus months into it, and all of a sudden, it went from being a gradual to a dramatic change of pace. 

So, it's been everything I thought it would be and more. Lump into that, there's obviously a lot of personal things that come along with the events of Helmut passing that made it that much harder, and it is a challenging industry. That's what I've really come to appreciate.

Bisnow: I was going to ask you about that, you coming on board right before he passed, what your position looked like then and if that was part of a succession planSo it sounds like yes, he had actively brought you in with the idea that you would take over one day.

Jahn: Right. I had left my previous job and was doing some real estate development on my own. And I was looking for a place to office, so I said, can I office out of the Jahn office, and he didn't have a problem with that. And so that was a bit of a gradual introduction into the atmosphere. And some of my pursuits, I was working on with Helmut's help, and so we were starting to interact on a daily basis, frequently, a couple of times a day. And it was through that interaction that we realized that we could work together. And that's what I think really laid the groundwork to the succession of this firm. 

We are a family shop for all intents and purposes, we've just had a high degree of achievement and success. So then Helmut extended a formal offer to join the firm. We didn't have all the steps mapped out into how it would transition into a full succession at that point, but it was definitely with that intent. And like I said, five months into it, all of a sudden it went from being very incremental to a dramatic change of responsibilities. 

And, you know, Helmut was involved every day, more than five days a week still right up until the day of his death. And when you have someone in that capacity at that level of involvement, even at his advanced age [81], there's a lot to replace, not just in terms of creativity, but in terms of all the responsibilities that he took on. So that's been a big part of unpacking OK, how do we distribute these things over the deep bench of talent that we have at the firm? And so, it's been an opportunity for a lot of growth for not just myself, but other people within the firm, to step up and now take on more responsibility.

Jahn President Evan Jahn and Managing Director Steven Cook accepting an award for the firm's EDEN Tower in Frankfurt at the FIABCI Germany ceremony in Berlin in November 2022.

Bisnow: You mentioned there are some things you want to carry over and there are some things you want to evolve. Can you give me some more information on both sides of that?

Jahn: Well, we've always been a firm that's had a very public and civic-minded aspect with regards to the way that our projects interact with the environment. And that's something that we want to keep and continue to develop. Keeping buildings that exude a technical aesthetic that isn't just aesthetic, but it is actually performance. Now more than ever, this sort of demonstrated technicality of buildings is inherently dematerializing them, which is a benefit from an environmental standpoint of decarbonization of buildings and essentially not putting unneeded materials into the building process and the actual structure of the building. 

And the evolution in the firm dynamic is that it becomes a little bit more of a collaborative approach to design with the deep bench of talent that we have here. People that worked alongside Helmut and absorbed all that knowledge and helped create a lot of that knowledge base are still here. We lost the key person in Helmut, but there's still so much of what was created over the past 40 years-plus still here at the firm today. 

So it's not about taking a hard right or hard left, but it's still a bit of this incremental evolution of our work. And then we always want to show that there's still a correlation to what we did 10 years ago and 20 years ago, and that you can trace this line back.  

But with a lot of things in the world today being more of a focus on equity and inclusion and sustainability, which is obviously a cornerstone of my passion and career, we are treating projects with rigor in order to make sure that they are in alignment with carbon reduction goals and energy reduction goals.

Bisnow: What project under design by your firm right now are you most excited about?

Jahn: I don't think [it's] any secret that there's a lot of interest and passion in this office for the James R. Thompson Center. I got the opportunity to work on not just such a pivotal piece of architecture in the Loop in Chicago, but now with Google's involvement, it obviously takes on a whole other degree of impact for the city. And obviously, it has a still really big relationship to the legacy of design that Helmut had at that building. It's also a building with unique form that just has so much potential for creating unique space. And that's really what's so exciting about that project is that there's all this opportunity for different types of access and utilization and vibrancy brought into the downtown business district to make it an exemplary project for how big, design-focused projects can have such a big impact on the financial viability and stability of downtown areas.

Bisnow: So Google bought the Thompson Center last summer, they said that you guys were going to revamp it, Prime Group was going to do some revitalization of the building, and then they were going to take occupancy in 2026. And then in January, Google announced 12,000 layoffs. Is that project still on track? Or have there been any changes with all that movement?

Jahn: No, the project's still moving forward. I think that Google still has every intention on occupying the building. It just brings more of a microscope on not just this project, but what Google's doing on all their real estate improvements and projects, and being very diligent with where they're spending their money. And so does it change the environment from maybe what we would have seen two years ago or even further before that? Yeah. Probably. In the end, it's putting more emphasis on making sure that the design and the performance of the building really align and are shown as real paybacks for those investments.

Bisnow: Where does that project stand right now?

Jahn: There are different areas of building that are in different phases. But overall, I'd say we're probably close to an end of schematic design on it.

Jahn President Evan Jahn and his daughter on a fishing excursion in Rhode Island.

Bisnow: Are there any other projects going on at Jahn, or maybe some initiatives that you're kicking off that you're excited and want to talk about?

Jahn: Well, the city of Chicago released an RFP for redevelopment of a lot of properties along LaSalle Street with the intent to, as they put it, reimagine LaSalle Street because they have to acknowledge that it's not going to be used as this strictly business corridor anymore. They're trying to court redevelopment of a lot of the office buildings into mixed-use or residential developments so that it can become a multi-use neighborhood.  

So that got us thinking about, well, you can repurpose buildings, but the streetscape isn't really built to be in a multi-use neighborhood. And so we've started some design studies in-house. We wanted to study what would it take to redefine LaSalle Street as a streetscape, to enhance these types of alternative uses for the buildings that line it. Because you can redevelop these buildings, but there's still no schools, there's still no grocery stores, there's not the dry cleaners and everyday services that people need. But on top of that, there's not really enough open space either. There are wide sidewalks, but there's no green space that's actually inhabitable.

So we've done a design investigation to reimagine the street, as we see it being necessary to make it truly a desirable place to live. And when we feel like it's the right time to open that up to public forum, we’ll probably put it out there. 

And then something more recently that we're involved in this missing middle competition for the Invest South/West Initiative through the Department of Planning and Development here in Chicago, which is aiming to provide these model, middle-income housing typologies that can be funded with the grant money for Invest South/West, filling this much-needed gap in affordable middle-income housing for the south and west sides of Chicago. Because being a liaison in Chicago myself, and this firm always being located here with a strong lineage to some of the founding architecture firms of the city, we have a strong passion for our own backyard. And I believe that making Chicago stronger is something that should be carried out by all the citizens, but especially if you're a design firm in the city, you obviously have a strong vested interest in lending your capabilities to improve the environment for everyone. 

Bisnow: Give me a bold prediction for the rest of the year.

Jahn: The war in Ukraine will end. 

Bisnow: It's the weekend interview. What's your weekend routine or favorite weekend activity?

Jahn: Taking my kids [aged 8 and 7] skiing. I don’t know if we call it skiing here in Illinois, but it’s sliding in the snow.