“Our Architecture is for People”: In Conversation with Ralph Johnson of Perkins + Will

Ralph Johnson (b. 1948) is a global design director at Chicago-based Perkins and Will. The architect joined the company in 1977 and has been heading its design ideology since 1985. Johnson is the architect behind the firm’s most iconic buildings, including Rush University Transformation Project (2012), O’Hare International Airport (1993), and Boeing International Headquarters (1990) – all in Chicago, the United States Coast Guard Headquarters (2015) in Washington DC, Tinkham Veale University Center at the Case Western Reserve University (2015) in Cleveland, and Shanghai Natural History Museum (2015). The architect’s monographs have been published regularly since mid-1990s under his own name. He has been a visiting critic at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois, his alma mater, from which he received his Bachelor of Architecture in 1971. He acquired his Master of Architecture from Harvard’s GSD in 1973.

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Shanghai Natural History Museum. Image © James Steinkamp

The architect won numerous architectural competitions and awards and was inducted into the National Academy of Design in 2015. We spoke over the phone about the most valuable lessons he learned from his education and mentors, his early success in winning design competitions, his dream job as a designer at one of the biggest architectural practices in the world, his hometown Chicago, and his design approach driven by program, context, and visionary clients.  

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Could you talk about your experience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then Harvard’s GSD? 

Ralph Johnson: I was already prepared to practice architecture by the University of Illinois with rigorous technical courses. I also had working experience at Stanley Tigerman’s office for almost two years, between my degrees. So, I came to Harvard with experience. What GSD gave me was a more general and much broader view of the profession and philosophy of architecture. I was taught about social responsibility in architecture by great professors there. The absolute highlight for me was meeting Shadrach Woods [1923-73] who worked for Le Corbusier in late 1940s and then was a partner at Candilis-Josic-Woods, Paris-based office that he started with George Candilis. He designed and built housing projects throughout North Africa and now I often look at them, as we currently have a number of urban projects and competitions in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and throughout the Middle East. Harvard was a great opportunity to have a chance to meet such talented people. 

Rush University Medical Center. Image © James Steinkamp

VB: What did you learn from working with Stanley Tigerman?

RJ: I came to work specifically on his Instant City project – building over a freeway. It was fantastic, although it was a theoretical project. Tigerman was one of the most creative and challenging architects to work for in Chicago at the time. Working there was particularly exciting because he was connected literally to the whole world. He was teaching at Cooper Union in New York with John Hejduk at the time and was very engaged in discussing students’ ideas and projects. Just to be able to talk to him in the office was very special. Also, he was then working on the Library for the Blind, which was fascinating because the building was not just based on the architect’s imagination, but rooted in the special nature of the problem at hand. It was a fantastic project to learn from. It was very tactile; the building itself was a kind of device to provide guidance to blind people with the help of shapes, surfaces, and bright colors.

VB: That was also the time when Chicago Seven, a group of first generation of Post-Modernist architects led by Tigerman was active. How influenced were you by their ideas and projects? 

RJ: Interestingly, my father in law,James [Jim] Nagle was one of the original Chicago Seven architects and he also worked for Tigerman before opening his office in late 1960s with Larry Booth, a fellow architect at Tigerman's office and also one of the Chicago Seven architects.Well, it was important to start a new conversation then. Jim recalled that in the 1970s it got to a point when you would get off an airplane, and you didn't know where you were. So, it wasn't Mies that got boring. It was the copiers that got boring. And my work is based on my strong conviction that every building should be a response to a particular condition. Every building requires its own solution. That was my lesson from the Chicago Seven group, not their specific language that they chose to express their architecture with. The years that I spent at Harvard were dominated by Miesian ideology, so I understand the architects, such as Chicago Seven, who revolted against it. Perhaps because of that, my position is not to carry a particular style in a body of work. It is rather about an approach – How do you address specifics of each project and location? In any case, Chicago Seven was a major disruption, primarily saying that we need to talk about other things, not just Mies. The Post-Modern movement somewhat undermined his importance, but it opened up the profession, nevertheless. And it took a while for his reputation to come back. 

Rush University Medical Center. Image © James Steinkamp

VB: In one of your interviews you said about your GSD education, ”Through my direct exposure to a number of great architects, I learned that over time you should develop your own personal approach to architecture.” Do you still believe that?

RJ: Sure, but it takes time to get to that level. In my case this was a process of working for a number of people and doing a lot of competitions, which I did from the very beginning on the side. For example, I did the Pahlavi National Library Competition, a one million sq. ft. building. I literally did it out of my kitchen. Out of 600 entries my project made it into ten finalists. I was competing against such great architects as Alison and Peter Smithson. Then I was invited to Teheran for the awards ceremony. At the time, I was in my late twenties and had done a very extensive presentation. They thought I was probably SOM or someone like that. [Laughs.] That competition was won by GMP from Germany, but the whole project abruptly ended with the fall of the shah in 1979. I also took part in Roosevelt Island competition. I did the Biscayne Housing competition in Miami area that I won out of more than 100 entries. Many of them were ideas completions. Still, for me participating in architectural competitions was the process of evolving as an architect in search for my personal approach, my own path.

VB: After Harvard did you go back straight to Chicago?  

RJ: I was working for an architect on a new town project in Florida that was never built. It was during recession and it was not a good time to look for work, so I stayed, and I continued doing completions. But I always wanted to work for Perkins and Will, even when I was at school in Illinois. It was actually my dream. In fact, that was the main reason for going back to Chicago. You know, my thesis project at the University of Illinois was a real project by Perkins and Will that I analyzed and developed. It was a community college. So, I was always interested in educational facilities and it is still my favorite building type to this day. 

Northtown. Image © James Steinkamp

VB: You joined Perkins and Will in 1977. I wonder what was your initial position and how and when you transitioned into your current role?

RJ: I was hired as a design architect. I knew the firm’s work really well. Right away, I was put on the design project in Saudi Arabia. It was around 1982 or 83 when my first building, a psychiatric hospital, designed at Perkins and Will was published. I would say there was a lot of James Stirling in there. [Laughs.] But, again, the main concern was not about design but what is the difference between a regular hospital and psychiatric one. And then in 1984, my Music Center at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington was on the cover of Progressive Architecture (P/A) magazine. There were nine awards and 20 citations out of 934 submissions that year. The jury members included Oswald Ungers and James Polshek. It was a big deal for me. Years later, I was told by younger colleagues that they remember how the project made an impression on them. It was done for a real client, but unfortunately, it was never built. I became the head designer in 1985. At that time, we had only three offices – in Chicago, New York, and Washington DC. 

Northtown. Image © James Steinkamp

VB: I looked at the world map on your website and counted 25 dots, ten of which are outside of the US. How many active projects does the company currently undertake and what does it mean to be the global design director of the organization that numbers 2,600 people?

RJ: I couldn’t even guess. [Laughs.] A lot. Being the global designer means that I am overseeing the design of our 25 offices, which is quite challenging. We have what is called a peer review group. We meet at our offices all over the world – in the US, Canada, London, Copenhagen, Shanghai, São Paulo, and we discuss projects, giving each other critiques, and making recommendations.

VB: How many active projects are you working on personally and are you responsible for all projects that come out of the Chicago office?

RJ: There are other principal designers in our Chicago office. Each is responsible for a number of projects. Right now, I am personally working on three projects and we try to bring new designers to share responsibilities and promote younger architects. Typically, I am intensely involved in just two-three projects at a time.  

United States Coast Guard Headquarters. Image © James Steinkamp

VB: You often work by sketching alone – on the planes and at hotels. How do you start then? 

RJ: Every one of my projects starts with a sketch that would point to the main idea. I have hands on approach and before meeting with the team I have to spend some time alone to figure out a particular direction. I know that some architects would ask their teams to do five schemes and then they start the critique and choose and pick. My approach starts with my sketches; this is how I always worked. And it could be just one scheme or more, but I am the one who would make that decision. 

VB: How would you describe what you do as an architect? What is your architecture about?

RJ: It is about making responsible and responsive buildings that reflect social and environmental concerns. The essence for me is to create humanistic environments that shelter, comfort, and perform on many meaningful levels. What is also important to understand is that architecture is always changing, and our knowledge is increasing. We learn from our own buildings from the past or projects by our colleagues, and we adjust. We learn, and that constantly leads us somewhere else. What I like about the kind of projects we do here is that our projects are socially driven. Our architecture is for people.  

United States Coast Guard Headquarters. Image © James Steinkamp

VB: I came across some books with your name on the cover. Does that mean that your work has a certain autonomy within the firm? Why did you decide to stay working for a global company, as opposed to open your own practice?

RJ: I think I am very fortunate to enjoy my position within a large corporate firm. It is a rare case. Perhaps architects such as Gordon Bunshaft or Walter Netsch, both working as design principals at SOM – one in New York, the other in Chicago – are rare exceptions. They surely serve as models for me. I admire people who open their own firms who not only design but also make business decisions. But I didn’t want that. I want to concentrate on design only. I love the fact that our firm is in Chicago and we were able to realize many diverse projects here. And I also like the fact that we are a global firm. Right now, one of my projects is in China, another one is in Beirut, and I am working on a competition project in Saudi Arabia. And there is another project that is starting construction now in Chicago. 

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Cite: Vladimir Belogolovsky. "“Our Architecture is for People”: In Conversation with Ralph Johnson of Perkins + Will" 30 Jun 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/942637/our-architecture-is-for-people-in-conversation-with-ralph-johnson-of-perkins-plus-will> ISSN 0719-8884

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Shanghai Natural History Museum. Image © James Steinkamp

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