February was a David-versus-Goliath month for Chicago
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?
All global glitterati, including Frank Gehry, for his Disney
Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and Norman Foster, for his gherkin-shaped
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? Only the likes of Morphosis,
Ranch High School in Diamond Bar, California, has won international
acclaim; Fox and Fowle,
Nast tower brought sustainable, energy-saving architecture to Times
Square; and Peter
Eisenman, one of the most influential architects of our time, 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 an apartment at
& Fox's 1924 209 E. Lake Shore Drive, and since then work has
"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, a group founded in
1980 which today includes 200 7 to 21-year-olds, whose performances fuses
contemporary music, jazz and modern dance. The design of the new building
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 project. "The neighborhood's
a bit drab," he says, so for his building he's looking at using concrete
panels in red tones, with green or bluish accents. "We want it 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. Mayor Joseph Vas had called for "a new gateway for Perth
Amboy," a city of almost 50,000 that grew 12.7 percent between the
1990 and 2000 census. The new school is expected to eventually house nearly
3,000 students, and within the massive facility the district wanted 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
commanding 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 be devoting their
lives to shuffleboard and pinochle anytime soon. But they have to be noticing
that the grownups' table is adding chairs.