A to Z: John Ronan
Photo by Darris Lee Harris
Photo by Darris Lee Harris
Zurich Esposito interviewing John Ronan
Ronan's design for the Poetry Foundation, 61 W. Superior Street, received a 2012 AIA Institute Honor Award, a national design award. His design for the new South Shore International College Prep, at 75th Street and Jeffrey Boulevard, was featured in the January issue of Architectural Record. Ronan, associate professor of architecture at IIT, is also chairing the College of Architecture's dean search committee.
Poetry in Notion
Zurich Esposito joined John Ronan, AIA, in the contemplative serenity of the Poetry Foundation.
ZE What were you doing before you started your own firm, John Ronan Architects, in 1999?
JR I was working for Lohan Associates just before starting the firm, Krueck + Sexton before that, and for Stanley Tigerman before that.
ZE How big is your staff right now?
JR There are ten of us.
ZE Has that size changed much in the last few years?
JR Yes. There were twelve on staff two years ago.
ZE All things considered, that's pretty great. Consider yourself lucky.
What is your philosophy about finding and taking work? Can you still be selective in this market?
JR It's harder to be selective. There aren't as many good projects out there. I ask, "Is the world going to be a better place after this project is built?" As a result, we do a lot of work for nonprofits.
ZE Does that criterion keep you from working with developers?
JR Yes. We've only worked with two developers—enlightened developers.
ZE Chicago's Public Building Commission required that your South Shore College Prep High School be built to last 100 years. How do you design for a hundred years on a public school budget?
JR At $300 per square foot, this was the most expensive school we've ever done. The Chicago Public Schools has a thick book of standards that must be followed, with many requirements and specifications and not a lot of flexibility. Because the architect has to satisfy so many standards, the budget reflects that. It's still challenging. I admire thinking long term, wanting to build for a hundred years. It makes the architect question things about the longevity of the design and the construction.
ZE Do you have an approach to designing schools that can be seen in your firm's body of school design work?
JR All projects are different, but playing down to students by giving them buildings that look something like malls is the wrong direction. Part of education is how the school building makes you feel. The kids should feel important. Students should be proud of the school and feel important when they go in it. A school should be dignified.
ZE In addition to designing schools, you have a pretty demanding career in them, as an associate professor at IIT. What do you get out of teaching that compels you to be so committed to it?
JR If you care about where architecture is going and you care about the future, you are interested in teaching. It's a way of influencing the future course of architecture. I have a specific interest and philosophy that I want to impart to others. I enjoy the architectural investigation that takes place in an academic setting. It causes me to think in a different way than I can in the office, where it's easy to get bogged down in practicalities. Having one foot in academia is a way to stay in the world of ideas.
ZE Ever see yourself putting both feet in academia?
JR No. My primary interest is in practice. I'm most happy designing buildings. But I'd never leave academia altogether. It's something I believe in.
ZE Anything about Chicago's architecture and design community you'd like to see changed?
JR There's a mindset or philosophy that prevails here that takes pragmatism to extremes. It results in a certain expediency. I'd like to see that change so that work would be done in a more thoughtful way to produce better results. It's part of the culture, not just the architecture culture.
The industries that are here have a lot to do with it. In Chicago we don't have, for example, film or fashion in any big way; we have insurance and financial services—industries known for their pragmatism. In client interactions, the way to justify things in a design project here is different than in other places. I'm not saying don't be practical, but as an architect here you have to make your art out of the practical and describe it in those terms. A path-of-least-resistance design can unfortunately be the result. A project like the Poetry Foundation, though, is an exception to that. It's a special client.
ZE Did you expect the level of enthusiasm the building has received?
I knew the foundation would be happy with it. I knew I would be happy with it. I thought visitors to the foundation would appreciate it. But I wasn't sure how the media would feel about it. There's sort of a bias towards more photogenic architecture right now. I was curious if it would be accepted. Like poetry, the building causes you to work a little bit as it shows itself, but I think the effort is rewarded.