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Setting the Pace

Architect John Ronan will achieve star status this summer if his namesake firm wins the coveted bid for the Obama Presidential Center but regardless, his impact on Chicago has transcended the novelty of form and made our city a richer place.

John Ronan is honored to be selected as a finalist for the Obama Presidential Center design—“it will be a great project for Chicago no matter who is chosen,” he says. 

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After the huge success of the Gary Comer Youth Center on the city’s South Side, John Ronan Architects was commissioned for a follow-up: the Gary Comer College Prep high school. The two buildings work in conjunction with each other and share a cafeteria and gym. 

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A side view of the Poetry Foundation—the entrance and garden are raised to distinguish it from the street.

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The new office tower at Randolph and Franklin, currently under construction, will have a public plaza under the building that serves as the entrance for tenants. There is also an outdoor space on the second floor that allows you to leave the office without leaving the building. 

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The Leaf Lounge—Ronan’s installation at the Chicago Architecture Biennial last fall—used found materials such as fallen leaves and wire baskets (welded into a wall that became a leaf bin) to create a communal spot to pause and take a break from the cityscape while still being right in it.

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Wood shelving wraps the library in the Poetry Foundation, framing the view to the courtyard garden.  

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If being the only local architect chosen to propose a design for the future Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s South Side is cause for added pressure, or bravado, John Ronan certainly doesn’t let it show. A Harvard grad who has lived the majority of his life here, Ronan designs and lives by the mantra that everything continually evolves. “My process is research-based and collaborative. I like to work closely with owners and stakeholders—the design emerges from the dialogue,” says Ronan. “I tend to cast the net wide and look at a lot of different ideas, then test them to find the solution that is intuitively correct,” he explains. “The design process is iterative.”

When it comes to intuitive design, there may be no better example than the Poetry Foundation at the corner of Superior and Dearborn. As Ronan says, the best projects have an air of mystery to them, and the Poetry Foundation provided all of the make-believe plus an interesting backstory: Poetry magazine has been published since 1912 (with contributions from virtually every single significant American poet of the 20th century) and, not surprisingly, had hardly any money until pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly donated a generous fortune. Her aim was to build a home for poetry that would include a library, performance space, exhibition gallery, offices and an outdoor space. It is the outdoor garden that became Ronan’s point of departure for the design. “I wanted the building to be in dialogue with the garden space; to have an unfolding quality,” he explains. And so it unfolds space by space, like a poem unfolds line by line. Even from the street, you can see the outdoor space through a mesh wall that at once makes it accessible yet enigmatic. “Too many buildings are visual one-liners,” notes Ronan. “I want you to have to walk through to really appreciate the experience of it.”

Another Ronan project that is guided by experiential qualities is the innovation center for the Illinois Institute of Technology, beginning construction this summer. Being one of few buildings on campus that is open 24/7, Ronan gave it a lantern-like quality by using a fluorine-based polymer (ETFE) on the exterior. This outer wrapping creates a dynamic quality that allows it to move and adjust to the amount of solar power available (it’s been done in small applications but never on a whole facade), creating an energy-efficient, highly functional and beautiful beaming space. Never mind the Obama Presidential Center; this is sure to bring plenty of accolades.

Ronan has also been championing a more sustainable design to allow for Chicago-area high schools to smartly fit on one city block, rather than the suburban sprawl model that has proliferated.

And then there is 151 North Franklin, a 36-story office tower currently under construction at the corner of Randolph and Franklin. Ronan describes it as an office building that reflects the way people work now. It supports a collaborative environment where you can leave the office without leaving the building. The entry will be an outdoor public plaza under the building, adding a welcome respite of green space in the busy downtown core.

Despite the many other international projects he has on his roster, he always stays close to his roots, such as the home in St. Joseph, Mich., overlooking Lake Michigan that is nearing completion. A modern masterpiece with four courtyards and a bridge over a reflecting pool, it blurs the line between indoors and out, and features a smart mix of local materials inspired by the surroundings, such as burnt wood siding and locally mixed concrete. “There is an attention to detail that you learn when you do houses, and I think that’s what resonates with people about my institutional work,” Ronan posits.

As his reputation builds, his firm has been doing more and more work outside of the United States: “New technology means you aren’t so tied to one place anymore; the market is more global, and there is more movement in the industry in general,” he says. And while his scope may grow, his process stays the same. “I don’t ever design to the end point,” he explains. “Design works best when you don’t worry about the end result but rather focus on each step along the way.” It’s a nimble and inherently effective way of working, given that anything can change and often does. And, he adds: “It’s much more interesting when you don’t know exactly where you’ll end up.”