Taking the High-Craft High Road

By Jeanne Hartig
Urban Development - Today
John Ronan
John Ronan
Photo: Matt Bigelow

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces back the origins of the word “architect” to the Latin architectus and Greek arkhitekton-someone known as a master builder, the designer of works, or a carpenter.

However, an Old English definition, heahcræftiga, or “high-crafter,” best describes John Ronan. The design architect for the building that will house the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, Ronan creates works that are elegant pieces of art and design as well as practical, well-constructed buildings that enhance communities rather than merely ego statements.

A professor at IIT College of Architecture, he is the founding principal of John Ronan Architects. Established in 1999, the firm rose to national prominence in 2004 with the winning design for the 500,000-square-foot Perth Amboy High School in New Jersey. His firm received two American Institute of Architects (AIA) Institute National Honor Awards, for the Poetry Foundation and the Gary Comer Youth Center, both in Chicago. In 2010, Princeton Architectural Press published a monograph entitled Explorations: The Architecture of John Ronan. The firm’s work has also been displayed in galleries and exhibitions such as Iterations: John Ronan’s Poetry Foundation, shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013–14.

IIT Magazine met with this Chicago high-crafter to discuss a wide range of topics-from statement buildings to which architects would make the most interesting dinner guests.

After seeing a young man shot on the street near a school you designed in Chicago, you said, “For the students to learn, they have to feel safe.” When you design a building, is its functionality as important as the feelings people experience when they see it or are in it?

How a building connects with people on an emotional level is one of the most important aspects of architectural design, and I don’t think it comes at the expense of function but resides in how you handle the most fundamental questions of building design. How do I enter? How do I move from floor to floor? How is the structure handled? Too much emphasis today is placed on imagery and form, and as a result too many buildings strive to be noticed, which leads to the worst kind of excesses. My interest is to design buildings that will be remembered.

The architect Stanley Tigerman drew parallels between your work and that of Mies. Are such comparisons complimentary? Confining? A mixed blessing?

It depends who you are being compared to [laughs]. I suppose it’s always flattering to be mentioned in the same sentence as Mies, an architect whose work I admire greatly and who remains relevant today. My work is about fundamental issues of building-space, material, structure-and doesn’t look outside of the discipline for validation, so in that way I can see the affinity. But there are other architects whose work has been more influential for me such as Eero Saarinen, for example.

When does a building earn or deserve the right to be called iconic?

It varies. Some buildings are instant classics while others prove themselves to be so in retrospect. Unfortunately, the term “iconic” has now become rather indiscriminately applied to any building that exhibits some kind of formal exuberance, which only encourages further self-expression and object making. This trend is leaving a legacy of self-referential “object” buildings, which refer to nothing except their authors’ egos, which impoverishes our collective urban space. Our definition of iconic needs to change, and perhaps IIT can play an instrumental part in that change.

Your approach to design, an iterative approach using handmade models and digital tools, is reminiscent of artists who started with chalk drawings before moving to oils. Are three-dimensional models important in “selling” the concept to your clients-or done primarily to help the architect shape and refine a vision?

It’s important to distinguish between different kinds of drawing and model making. The drawings or sketch models I do at the beginning of a project are done as a means of thinking. Later drawings and models, whether digital or by hand, tend to be more about communication-to the owner, the builder, the community-that explains the design and the arguments behind it. I don’t privilege hand drawing over digital tools, but I do privilege speed, and it is simply faster to draw by hand at the beginning of the process to develop ideas; a computer forces a precision on the project that is unmerited at that early stage and just slows the process down.

You are recognized for having done a wide range of building types. Is there something about them that signals that they are John Ronan designs?

I am not interested in developing a signature style, but there is a similar sensibility at work in all the projects-whether they be institutional, commercial, or residential-and also similar themes operating in each, such as the approach to materials, the spatial layering, and the importance of natural light. But I think design should be anonymous, in a way, and not constantly referring back to its author; so if someone walks into a building and immediately says my name, then that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Which architects, living or dead, would you invite to a dinner party?

John Soane, Sigurd Lewerentz, Eero Saarinen. (By the way, don’t invite [Frank Lloyd] Wright and Le Corbusier to the same party. I did that once. What a mistake.)