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One to Watch

A splashy new high school puts John Ronan on the map.

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February was a David-versus-Goliath month for Chicago architects. When Wired magazine announced the nominees for its Rave awards--celebrating "the leading thinkers and doers in the Wired world"--Jeanne Gang, cited for her Starlight Theater in Rockford, was the only American in the architecture category. Her four competitors were all global glitterati, including Frank Gehry, for his Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and Norman Foster, for his gherkin-shaped Swiss Re skyscraper in London. The winner will be announced on March 15. The odds against Gang would appear long, but just landing in such blue-chip company is enough to set the flashbulbs popping.

Then on February 24 Chicago architect John Ronan, whose striking Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Hyde Park is nearly completed, found out that he'd won the competition to build an $84 million high school in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. His competition included Morphosis, whose Diamond Ranch High School in Diamond Bar, California, has won international acclaim; Fox and Fowle, whose Conde Nast tower brought sustainable, energy-saving architecture to Times Square; and Peter Eisenman, who's one of the most influential architects of our time and happens to have been born and bred in the Garden State.

Perth Amboy is a big step up for the 40-year-old Ronan, who works out of a sunny, open loft in River North. He knew he wanted to become an architect by the time he was in fifth grade. "It started with a love of drawing," he says. "I was always designing little houses on my homework and doodling in class." In Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he grew up, "there was one really cool modern house on the street right near a friend's house. There were no windows on the front. It was like this real kind of 60s minimalist thing--so unlike everything else. I was really intrigued by it."

Ronan studied at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and started his career at the Chicago firm of Krueck & Sexton, working on banks and showrooms for clients such as Northern Trust and Herman Miller. He eventually moved to the firm of Mies van der Rohe's grandson, Dirk Lohan, where he worked on the expansion of the Adler Planetarium.

Five and a half years ago he decided he was ready to start his own firm, John Ronan Associates. "You usually get a side job that's too big for you to do on the side," he says. "You kind of have to make the jump." For him the job was the renovation of a 1924 apartment at 209 E. Lake Shore Drive, and since then work has been steady. "I've been lucky that way--haven't had any kind of crisis. I purposely keep the firm small so I don't have to take every project."

Ronan's biggest project to date has been the $14 million youth center he's designing for the South Shore Drill Team & Performing Arts Ensemble. Its design reflects Ronan's interest in materials--at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he teaches, he conducts a "materials investigation" seminar each year. This year the subject is fiber-reinforced concrete, which he's using for the youth center. "The neighborhood's a bit drab," he says, so he's thinking of using concrete panels in red tones, with green or bluish accents. "We want it to be colorful and vibrant and an exciting place to be."

Ronan is used to clients with demanding requirements and shoestring budgets. He sets himself apart from architects such as Rem Koolhaas who spend a lot of time creating specific spaces for current needs. "My work is less program driven," he says. "I design stuff thinking that the program's going to change. I'm thinking about flexibility--how can this accommodate different things over time?" For the youth center he's creating a gymnasium that converts into an auditorium for performances. At the Akiba-Schechter school, he says, "they wanted all this kind of stuff that they didn't really have money for, so what I came up with was this adaptable space. It can be used as a lunchroom. They have plays there, but primarily it's an indoor recreation room." The perimeter walls are precast concrete inscribed with Hebrew characters; the walls that face a courtyard are clad in copper and have generous strips of windows.

The Perth Amboy project will let Ronan work on a more ambitious canvas. The mayor had called for "a new gateway for Perth Amboy," a city that grew 12.7 percent between the 1990 and 2000 censuses. The new school is expected to eventually house nearly 3,000 students, and within the massive facility the district wants to create "smaller learning communities." Freshmen will be grouped together. Older students will be enrolled in one of five academies, each with a different vocational emphasis: "civics, law, and public safety," "business and industrial information technology," "liberal arts," "environmental, health, and food sciences," and "visual and performing arts and communications." The academies were created with an eye to partnerships with local employers--hospitals, government agencies, and corporations such as ChevronTexaco.

Ronan designed a long, low finger of a building to house each academy--he calls each a "bar," the group the "barscape." Daylight enters each classroom from two directions, and clerestory windows open to provide natural ventilation. A "browsing circuit"--a continuous interior corridor--links the academies.

The element that gives the school its distinctive visual kick is a series of five multistory towers that rise at different points along the barscape. Ronan's design clads the towers in laminated glass with a tinted layer that includes graphics. The auditorium tower, for example, has orange glass, an oversize image of a dancer on one face and a violinist on another, and a massive letter A at the corner. The dining tower is blue, administration pink, fitness and health--with its stacked gymnasiums--green. Ronan says the graphics are "kind of conceptual at this point," subject to change as the project evolves.

"The media tower is basically at the heart of the school," he says. It's the tallest of the towers and includes the library and a movie theater. Its glass is tinted yellow and at the tower's summit wraps around a reading garden that offers views of the surrounding city.

Together these visual ramparts are the key to the concept of the building being not just a school but a community resource. "The fitness tower," Ronan says, "might be open early in the morning for classes for the community, be used as a gym for student phys ed classes during the day, and then open up again at night as a community fitness club." There will be more than 600 parking spaces under the building to accommodate visitors.

Ronan's design recognizes that our age is both visually oriented and informationally dense, yet he distances himself from architects such as Douglas Garofalo, who use computers to create pathbreaking shapes and forms. He prefers drawing and making models. "I think whatever medium you work in sort of dictates the form," he says. "If you work in clay it's going to give you a certain kind of form. If you work in cardboard models it's going to give you a certain kind of form." For better and worse, he says, designs that come out of a computer look like they did. "It's a value system. Is form the primary reason you're an architect? It's not the reason I'm an architect. Form is a natural outgrowth of our process and not the agenda. I'm interested more in space. You don't see many great spaces anymore. It's about exploring the integration of space, structure, and material--bringing those into an interdependent relationship."

Ronan sees the current state of architecture in Chicago as "very promising," and he adds, "I think the known architects in the Chicago area are all reaching retirement age. A new, younger generation of architects is coming into its own." He may be a bit overoptimistic--Helmut Jahn, Lucien Lagrange, and Adrian Smith are unlikely to devote their lives to shuffleboard and pinochle anytime soon. But they must have noticed that the grown-ups' table is adding chairs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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