Helmut Jahn and I once talked — I can’t believe this conversation was 21 years ago already — about Sony Center
, his then-brand new project opening on Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz.
As we went over the details of the $800 million project, Jahn focused on a cobblestone-like curved walkway that led from the street into the complex. The path is privately owned, but Jahn purposely gave it the feel of a public way. He wanted the public to venture into Sony Center and feel like they belonged.
That was quite a design gesture in 2000, given that just a little more than a decade before, Potsdamer Platz was a barricaded Cold War no-man’s land dividing East from West. But Sony officials, contrary to Jahn’s vision of openness, wanted doors at the walkway’s entrance.
“They said, ‘We need some doors here,’” Jahn told me. “I said, ‘What?’ They said, ‘It’s going to be a security problem at night.’’’
Jahn, one of architecture’s brightest lights over the past 50 years — who was killed on Saturday
in a bicycle accident in Kane County — cared about the design of civic spaces in his work. He said no to the Sony Center doors.
And within a few days of our talk, I saw Sony Center in person as this paper’s architecture critic. I strolled the walkway. Jahn was absolutely right.
Which brings us to what irks me most about the State of Illinois’ decision last week to slap a for-sale sign on the Sony Center’s design cousin, the Jahn-designed Thompson Center in Chicago’s Loop, in hopes that a developer will buy the building, demolish it and put up something new.
Wrecking the Thompson Center robs Chicago of a one-of-a-kind building, taking with it that soaring, spectacular, glass-topped atrium. A showstopper of glass, color and motion, the atrium is one of our city’s most special public spaces; so much so that it pushes back against more than 40 years of poor stewardship by the state — the cheaping out on construction details and maintenance.