“To Be a Good Architect You Have to Be Fearless”: In Conversation with John Ronan

“To Be a Good Architect You Have to Be Fearless”: In Conversation with John Ronan

John Ronan (b. 1963, Grand Rapids, Michigan) is known for his sensual atmospheric buildings that tend to unfold layer by layer their spatial complexity, as one moves through them. His focus is on the use of materiality in ways that reinvent architecture. Ronan holds a Master of Architecture degree with distinction from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (1991) and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Michigan (1985). He has been teaching architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology since 1992. John Ronan Architects was established in Chicago in 1999, the year Ronan won the Townhouse Revisited Competition sponsored by the Graham Foundation. In 2006, the firm was featured in the Architectural League of New York’s Emerging Voices and the Young Chicago exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2007, the architect was selected to build the prestigious Poetry Foundation in Chicago, out of a pool of 50 international contenders. His monograph Explorations: The Architecture of John Ronan was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2010. In 2016, the firm was named one of seven international finalists for the Obama Presidential Library. The following interview is a condensed version of our conversation at the architect’s studio in Chicago.

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Poetry Foundation. Image © Steve Hall

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Your architecture seems to be quite reserved. Would you agree and would you say this reflects who you are as a person?

John Ronan: Yes. I would agree with that, to some degree.  It comes from inside, but it is also imposed from the outside. Yes, I am more introspective, contemplative type, and personally, I am shy and that is reflected in my architecture. The imposed outside part is the influence of the place where I practice – in Chicago. Every place has its own DNA. At the root of Chicago genetic code is a kind of hardcore brutal pragmatism. There is no accident that, for example, Mies van der Rohe succeeded in establishing his career here. There was a perfect match in the DNA of the person and that of the place. And if you look at the list of people who succeeded here, they were those who understood this genetic code well, the severity of Chicago’s pragmatism, but also, those who could transcend it at the same time and turn it into poetry. Again, Mies would be a perfect example of that. His work here seems almost straight forward, yet very essential and very poetic. Back in my school years, my work was more exuberant and form-driven. I sometimes wonder – why? That is because I am influenced by place but also by time. The clients here are very different from, let’s say, New York or Los Angeles. Look at the industries based here – insurance, financial services, which are very low risk, very conservative. Design, fashion, and media companies are not based here. This attitude is reflected in our skyline. This place is very pragmatic at its core, and my work is informed by that.   

VB: Yet, this is not your hometown. You came here by choice, right?

JR: I came here because I felt a connection with Chicago that I did not feel with either Los Angeles or New York. I came here because I like Chicago’s culture and I felt that I would fit in here. I sensed that this is the place where I could succeed.

Independence Library and Apartments. Image © James Florio

VB: After earning your bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan and before going to Harvard for your master’s you worked for Stanley Tigerman for a couple of years. Did he represent this Chicago DNA or its character? 

JR: First, he did not represent anything. There was nothing typical about Stanley. He became known for protesting against Miesian orthodoxy that was dominating the architectural discourse at that time by forming so-called Chicago Seven, a group of first-generation Post-Modern architects here. They offered a critique of what by then has become an unquestioned mode of practicing architecture. I decided to work for him because he was the most well-known architect in Chicago. I applied to a number of architects and he was the first to respond and hired me on the spot. I was just 21. But after two years of working for Stanley, I knew I didn’t want to do Post-Modernism, which was quite prevalent at the time – almost everybody in Chicago was doing Post-Modernism, one way or another. There was not really much of a choice then; if you came to Chicago at that point you would be some strain of Post-Modernism, basically. That was the time when Chicago Public Library designed by Tom Beeby was being built. I did not like nostalgia and was drawn to the rational. At the time, Harvard was one of the few schools that was still focused on Modernism, so that’s where I went.     

Independence Library and Apartments. Image © James Florio

VB: What did you learn from Tigerman?

JR: I learned how to be an architect from Stanley because that was my first job. What I learned most from him was that it is the architect’s job to make a project. What I mean by that is that is part of your job as an architect to see the possibilities which reside in the brief, even if your client initially doesn’t.  For example, the brief for the Gary Comer Youth Center in Chicago’s South Side, a rough neighborhood, was about the most pragmatic training facility; the Owner wanted brick and the building users asked for no windows, because there were too many drive-by shootings in the neighborhood.  If I merely listened to my client, it would be just another mediocre building. But I proposed one idea, then another idea. I said, “What if we did this or that?” And Gary is a kind of person who would listen to you and then say, “That’s great, but what if we do this?” and he would challenge me to do something even more inventive than what I initially proposed. That’s the story of that building; it became something that went completely beyond the initial brief. 

I also learned from Stanley how to thrive on conflict. What I mean is that he was fearless. He didn’t back down. Perhaps that’s the main thing I learned from him – to be a good architect you have to be fearless. You have to be tough and persevere, because there are so many things working against you. To achieve a good building, you have to push people to do things that they may not want to do or are not accustomed to doing at the level you demand. To get a good result you have to be tough. It is about forming an argument and standing by your principles. That’s a problem with architecture today – there is often no argument and the result is arbitrary, and mostly about willful form making. There are so many stakeholders in even a small building, and the role of the architect is not simply to say “yes” to everybody. Architecture is about persuasion; as an architect, you have to persuade people and bring them along with you, so they feel invested in the project ideas and feel a sense of ownership. 

IIT Kaplan Institute. Image © Steve Hall

VB: How would you describe what you do as an architect to a lay person? What are the main intentions of your architecture?

JR: My architecture is primarily about space and materiality, and less about form; I try to create buildings which are formally simple but spatially complex. I am interested in the experience of a building rather than the image of a building. I feel there is too much of architecture now about one heroic image and how it can be propagated in the media to sell something; it’s transactional. I see my work as more of a spatial narrative; I like to explore how buildings unfold and how one moves through them. That’s what architecture is all about, for me. I’m not denying that there is a formal red line which runs through my work, but I don’t have an a priori formal agenda I’m trying to fill. I want my buildings to look different, one from the next, rather than developing a signature style.

I also search for authenticity and attempt to make every project site-specific and culture-specific.  I feel that so much of contemporary architecture could be picked up and plopped down somewhere else and you would never know the difference. There is too much contemporary architecture that’s placeless or arbitrary. I abhor arbitrariness. I’m rational and have to have a reason why I do things.  

IIT Kaplan Institute. Image © Steve Hall

VB: You designed your Poetry Foundation as a building that you said, “unfolds like a poem – line by line.” Could you talk about this idea of spatial unfolding?

JR: That building is composed of layers of different materials – a layer of birch wood wraps the interior and extends from the library on end to the performance space on the other. Outboard of that, there is a layer of glass that shifts in and out to compress and expand the exterior and interior spaces. The outermost layer of zinc wraps the whole thing and becomes perforated to reveal the garden which mediates between the street and building interior. The different layers which comprise the building compress and expand, which you feel as you move through the building. It is a manipulation of these layers that creates spatial sequences. That’s what I mean by “spatial narrative.” The idea is that you, as a visitor, can’t consume the building in a single glance, you don’t comprehend it immediately, you have to experience it to understand it. The second objective is that every time you come back you see something else, something new, like a good book you go back to, over and over again. The kind of architecture I like is one of formal simplicity but spatial complexity, which I think the Poetry Foundation achieves, or, as a cab driver once explained to me, “it’s simple, but it’s complex.”  The buildings I like are ones where I don’t know what’s around the corner, where the story is not given away all at once. I tell my clients, “I aim to design a building not to be noticed, but to be remembered.”

VB: Who or what would you credit as far as making an influence on your thinking?

JR: I’m inspired by literature. I think of every building as a book. I studied English literature in college. That’s why every time I start a new building, I think about it as if I were writing a book.  Some of the characters might carry over, but the plot is never the same. As far as influential buildings that made an impression on me, I would name the Alhambra in Granada, John Soane’s house [now museum] in London, Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, Sigurd Lewerentz’s churches in Sweden, and Gunnar Asplund & Lewerentz’s Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm.  All of these are spatial narratives.   

Chapel of St. Ignatius. Image © Nathan Kirkman

VB: You often work with humble materials to achieve very special quality. Could you talk about that? For example, you said that the way you use concrete you aim at achieving the kind of concrete that no one has ever seen before.

JR: What I attempt to do is to make the ordinary special. We carefully choose the ingredients. We experiment with the way the materials are produced and finished. I would compare what I do to the job of a chef; chefs all use the same ingredients but the way they are combined and transformed makes all the difference. So, it is about starting with something ordinary to achieve something that’s very special. It is about transformation, not about picking expensive ready-mades, as if design is nothing more than a process of selection. I would further compare the process of architectural design to how poets use ordinary words to produce poetry. It is how ordinary words are selected and sequenced that makes it memorable, makes it poetry. Likewise, there is no poetry in an architect merely selecting expensive materials; anyone can do it. There is no transformation there. What Herzog de Meuron did, in their early work, was take ordinary materials such as asphalt shingles, cement board, and plywood, and assemble it in the most novel ways to make something new.

Chapel of St. Ignatius. Image © Nathan Kirkman

VB: Could you talk more about materiality in your architecture? Is it materiality that gives you the notion of subjectivity? That’s your contribution, right?

JR: Yes, that’s the consistent and recurring theme in my work—to find inventive ways in how materials can be used to engender space. I don’t believe architects invent new materials—and I would be suspicious of any architect making this claim—but architects can invent new spatial relationships using materials. Ultimately, it’s about space, rather than materiality for its own sake.  My objective is to build a kind of space that makes people say, “My God, I have never been in a space like this before,” so I would say it is a spatial invention that I’m after, rather than material invention. I feel quite confident in my ability to use materials, but still have some work to do on the spatial aspects.  If I can achieve that, then I will feel like I have done something. 

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Cite: Vladimir Belogolovsky. "“To Be a Good Architect You Have to Be Fearless”: In Conversation with John Ronan" 04 Mar 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/934717/to-be-a-good-architect-you-have-to-be-fearless-in-conversation-with-john-ronan> ISSN 0719-8884

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Poetry Foundation. Image © James Florio

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