Dezeen Magazine

Architect Helmut Jahn memorialised in short documentary In a Flash

Architectural filmmaker Nathan Eddy explores the life and work of Helmut Jahn in this documentary, which was created after the architect's death earlier this year.

Named Helmut Jahn: In A Flash, the short film is based on an interview Eddy conducted with Jahn in June 2016.

Originally filmed for Eddy's Starship Chicago movie, but never used, the interview was turned into a film following Jahn's death. Eddy hopes it will further the architect's legacy and impart something of his character onto viewers who didn't know him.

A still of Helmut Jahn speaking from the film In a Flash
In a Flash is based on an interview conducted with Helmut Jahn in 2016

"I wanted it to be a very straightforward, stripped-down film, quite different from my other work, which usually involves a large number of subjects and a large number of viewpoints," Eddy told Dezeen.

"I wanted this to be a sort of direct communication between the audience and Helmut himself," he continued. "It takes place in his office and he's telling you his life story."

Jahn was known for his postmodern buildings, especially in his adopted city of Chicago. He was the architect of the James R Thompson Center, which was just last week saved from demolition, and United Airlines Terminal One at O'Hare airport.

His other key works include the Sony Centre complex on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin and the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.

Drone photo of the top of the Xerox Center in Chicago
The documentary makes extensive use of drone footage filmed across three continents and including the Xerox Center in Chicago

In the movie, he discusses his journey as an architect, starting from his arrival in Chicago in the late 1960s on a rotary scholarship and covering how his style and design philosophy evolved.

Eddy combines the conversation with new aerial drone footage of Jahn's buildings, aiming to show them in their current context, as well as a light piano score that helps to carry the viewer along.

Eddy feels there is a sense of melancholy in watching the film knowing that its subject is gone and being aware of the work of his that will go unrealised.

"At the time it was filmed, he was very much in the midst of projects and he's talking about his future, a future that doesn't exist for him anymore," said Eddy.

"This is somebody who would have lived until he was 100, and who would have been an architect until the very end. He had that kind of vitality," he continued.

"I think that he was undervalued. And I think he thought that too."

Thompson Centre
Jahn was the architect of many buildings in Chicago including the Thompson Center

Eddy's filmography is centred on architecture and urban planning, and he often focuses on protecting architectural heritage. His 2017 film Starship Chicago was about Jahn's James R Thompson Center in Chicago facing the threat of demolition.

With the announcement last week that the building would be saved, but with the renderings showing a very toned-down refit, Eddy expressed a mix of joy and cautiousness.

"The biggest change that you see is that almost all of the colour elements have gone away," he said. "I sincerely hope that this renovation is in keeping with the spirit of the original design."

Helmut Jahn: In A Flash had its world premiere in Chicago on December 1, 2021, presented by MAS Context and the Goethe-Institut Chicago.

Project credits:

Director and producer: Nathan Eddy
Editor and sound/colour correction: Leonardo Franke
Music: Paul Bonomo
Aerial photography: Carson Cloud
Aerial photography Philadelphia: Andy D’Angelo
Helmut Jahn interview camera/sound: Brian Cagle
Additional photography: Lucas Rucci