Bayer Headquarters

Bayer Headquarters in Leverkusen, Germany by Murphy/Jahn Architects, 2001

In October of 2000 the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) presented a symposium on the current state of Chicago architecture, "Where in the World is Chicago?". A panel of critics (local critics Blair Kamin and Lee Bey, Boston's Robert Campbell, and New York's Herbert Muschamp) presented their interpretations on the state of architectural production both by local architects and foreign architects building in the city. Four local architects (Carol Ross Barney, Jack Hartray, Joseph Valerio, and Helmut Jahn) joined the critics to debate them and respond to audience questions. Unlike the other architects the majority of Helmut Jahn's work is overseas, particularly Germany, and not in Chicago. Here we will focus on one of his current projects, the Bayer Headquarters in Leverkusen, Germany, in relation to his comments at the symposium.

Responding to Germany's strict environmental codes, Jahn's Bayer Headquarters expresses his ideal for a work of architecture, as outlined in the symposium: a synthesis of client and code requirements with engineering, the last providing solutions to the demands of the first two. And, though unspoken, he balances the engineering approach with a strong modernist aesthetic, using glass and steel that achieve varying levels of transparency arising from environmental considerations, in particular a double-skin facade that allows for yearly passive heating and cooling. A question arises from his capacity for production, and the locations of his projects: Why isn't the same level of design occurring in Chicago?

Jahn's "synthesis of three", a response to Germany's political and social demands, explains his firm's lack of work in Chicago and large amount of European work. The environmental codes of Germany are unequaled in the large midwestern metropolis which doesn't contend with the minimal, and expensive, energy situation that Germany's politicians have been forced to deal with. From a social standpoint an architecture of transparency is incompatible with a city that deals with violence through the creation of almost impermeable enclosures. For instance Jahn's highly transparent entry (emobdying some devices used in the Bayer Headquarters) for the Illinois Institute of Technology's student union does not work in an area bordering on low-income housing projects inhabited with gangs. Rem Koolhaas's winning design, a mostly solid box with selective openings generated by circulation patterns across the site, even includes an enclosure for the "L" platform above the building, rationalized as a practical device to control noise though more so a symbol of safety and protection.

As a "synthesis of three" the Bayer Headquarters is an exemplary project. A tall, colonnaded portico leads to a full-height atrium that cuts, slightly off-center, into the elliptical office block, the latter narrow enough so workers are at most 12m from the exterior wall's natural light (a code requirement). The double skin utilizes inner and outer curtain walls, louvers adjacent to the inner and the outer canted to get rid of heat gain. As mentioned earlier the double facade achieves yearly passive heating a cooling while giving the building its aesthetic expression and a human scale. In these we see how Jahn's architectural approach arose from situations particular to a place and time, essentially displacing his practice from Chicago. If Chicago's architects can learn one thing from Jahn's buildings and words it should be to look for a design process in response to local concerns: climatic, social, and political.