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Get your Helmut on: Honor architect and fallen cyclist Jahn with these bike rides

5:24 PM CDT on May 12, 2021

Helmut Jahn’s Thompson Center, the start and endpoint of our self-guided bike tour of his works. Photo: John Greenfield

Following the tragic death of legendary Chicago architect Helmut Jahn, 81, who was fatally struck by two drivers while riding his bike in west-exurban Campton Hills, some have been quick to blame him for his own demise, since witnesses said he rolled through a stop sign at a T-shaped intersection. But as I discussed earlier this week, there are still many unknowns about the case. The bottom line is, no one should be victim-blaming the architect, and everyone should have empathy for him and his grieving family and colleagues.

Helmut Jahn
Helmut Jahn

In a new Daily Herald article by Doug T. Graham, local bike advocates discussed what can be done to prevent similar heartbreak in the future. For example, Active Transportation Alliance advocacy manager Maggie Czerwinski noted that while only 19 percent of Americans live in rural areas like Campton Hills, that's where 58 percent of deadly crashes take place, partly due to the lack of pedestrian and bike infrastructure, and roads designed to prioritize high-speed driving. Potential solutions include building sidewalks and side paths, and lowering speed limits near intersections.

While Jahn was a controversial figure, his distinctive postmodern designs inarguably left their mark on our city and the world, from the drum-like Thompson Center in the Loop, with breathtaking views from the upper floors of its atrium, to the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, with its distinctive spiral-like concourse. And the way in which he left this world certainly hit a nerve for those of us who ride bikes.

Suvarnabhumi Airport concourse in Bangkok. Photo: wikipedia
Suvarnabhumi Airport concourse in Bangkok. Photo: Wikipedia

As such there are already a few different ways you can pay tribute Helmut on your bicycle.

The Ride of Silence, May 19 in Geneva, IL

Jahn is one of several bike riders killed or injured by drivers to be honored at the Chicagoland event for the annual international Ride of Silence, an event that aims to promote awareness of the need for laws, infrastructure, and safe driver behavior to prevent crashes. This year the ride, hosted by the Fox Valley Bicycle & Ski Club, gathers at on Wednesday, May 19, at 6 p.m. at the Kane County Government Center, 719 Batavia Avenue, in west-suburban Geneva, Illinois, about nine miles southeast of where Jahn was killed.

A participant who was injured on his bike gets a red armband at a Ride of Silence event in Chicago's Daley Plaza. Photo: Chicago Ride of Silence
A person who was injured on their bike gets a red armband at a past Ride of Silence in Chicago's Daley Plaza. Photo: Chicago Ride of Silence

After a poem paying tribute to fallen and injured cyclists is read, at 6:30 the group of cyclists, many wearing black arm bands, will depart on a silent, 10-12 mph procession through Geneva and St. Charles, where Jahn and his wife had a horse farm. Mask use is encouraged, and tributes to deceased or injured bike riders, such as signs, posters, and flowers are welcome.

In addition to the architect, the Chicagoland ride will honor the following cyclists:

    • Rosaleen "Rose" Rudden Waters who was killed by a driver on her bicycle in 2013 in Schaumburg, sister to FVBSC member Paul Rudden.
    • Caroline Moorman Saathoff who was fatally stuck by a driver in 1970 while riding in Burlington, Iowa.
    • FVBSC member Dr. Willard Hooks who was intentionally hit by a driver in 2016 in Geneva, dragged 84 feet, and spent two years recovering from life-threatening injuries. The driver was convicted of a felony.
    • FVBSC member Ralph King who was hit by a pickup truck driver in St. Charles and sustained life-threatening injuries.
    • Several other FVBSC members who have been struck by motorists and suffered broken bones and other injuries.

If you know of someone else who has been killed or injured while riding a bike, you can send their name and the date of the incident to for inclusion in the opening poem.

FVBSC asks that participants register as soon as possible so the club can get a headcount for its insurance rider and to notify local authorities.

Chicago Critical Mass on May 28

Chicago Critical Mass is the local version of the international monthly bike ride that doubles as a demonstration for the rights of people to safely bike on city streets, and a parade-like celebration of cycling and public space. The local ride gathers on the last Friday of every month in Daley Plaza, 50 W. Washington St., at 5:30 p.m., often drawing hundreds, or even thousands of participants, who depart after 6 for for a slow (typically 6-8 mph), joyful pedal around Chicago.

Last month's Chicago Critical Mass ride on the 18th Street bridge. Photo: John Greenfield
Last month's Chicago Critical Mass ride on the 18th Street bridge. Photo: John Greenfield

The ride is free, there's no registration, and with its slow pace and a group riding dynamic that insulates participants from car traffic, it works well for families with children. While the route is never decisively determined in advance, this month there's a proposal to visit several of Jahn's structures in downtown Chicago, before heading west for a tour of the Chicago Boulevard System, ending at Montrose Harbor in Uptown.

Map of downtown Jahn-designed buildings by local cartographer Dennis McClendon.
Map of Jahn-designed buildings in Chicago by local cartographer Dennis McClendon.

A self-guided bike tour of Jahn's downtown buildings

If you're more interested in honoring the architect at your own pace, I've put together the following do-it-yourself bike tour visiting all of his downtown Chicago designs. The route, suitable for intermediate-level urban cyclists, incorporates several protected bike lanes and a stretch of the Lakefront Trail, including the Navy Pier Flyover, which was just completed (sort of) this week. The route is about six miles, and is suitable for moderately-confident urban cyclists.

Whichever of these biking options you choose to honor Helmut Jahn, after your ride be sure to raise a toast to "Flash Gordon," as his friends and colleagues nicknamed him for his bold designs.

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