an Interview with John Ronan
 -with Lynn Becker



Related Links

  Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School
  John Ronan Architect
  Perth Amboy High School Design     Competition
  South Shore Drill Team
  Studio Gang

Q: What kind of area is your new Perth Amboy high school in?

A: . It's on the edge of the city. There's no real housing around there. It's a mixed bag. There are some playing fields around there. It was formerly an industrial area. The area across the street used to have oil tanks around it - they've taken that down.

Q: What was the evolution of the competition?

A: There were two stages - the first stage was open and anonymous. They had maybe 200-250 entries, Four were selected finalists. They gave us three months, and some money, to develop the scheme. We had 10 boards, and a couple of models.

Q: What's the purpose of the towers?

A: The communal functions of the school, which are shared with the greater community, are vertically arranged in this collection of five towers that are color-coded, for legibility, so when the community comes here, they can kind of see. During the day, they're integrated into the school, so they function as the library, the gym, the auditorium and the dining hall, administration. They're integrated into this level, but they also go down to the grade level and can be entered directly from the parking. The site is high on either end, and it dips down naturally in the center. So we're using that area, that dip, as parking.

The ground is this composite system of concrete and grass that you can drive on and it can also be filled with other materials to code the surface of the site according to different outdoor programs.

The bars [clusters of classrooms - one for each of the six academies] have been designed to be flexible, so that the interior arrangement of the bars can be changed over time, according to needs, and then the bars can be expanded over time. The building can grow over time as the community grows

Q: When you do a project like this school, do you think about the acoustics?

A: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. You're looking for different kinds of acoustics in different parts of the school, so the school classrooms have acoustic decking and acoustic panels up near the ceiling that ring around the room, just to create the proper acoustic environment for the student to hear the teacher. In the auditorium or the gym, you might have different acoustic requirements. Some places you want it to be kind of loud and noisy. In the hallways we've used hard, reflective surfaces to create an acoustic difference between the classrooms and the common spaces. We want that to be more live, and the classrooms more dead, acoustically.

Q: What are the projects you're most proud of at this point?

A: The school that we're doing in Hyde Park. [Akiba-Schechter] . . . how we worked with the community and how we did something very inventive and interesting on a very shoestring budget. There's a preschool that has a lot of students and then the elementary school itself has maybe 150 students, I would guess.

Q: What were the specific programmatic elements?

A: They wanted all this kind of stuff that they didn't really have money for, so what I came up with the for the ground floor is this adaptable space. It can be used as a lunchroom. They have a weekly lunchroom. They have plays there, but primarily it's an indoor recreation room. They went into it thinking that these would be different spaces. That's part of what you do as a designer. You help people get the most out of what they have.

Q: What's the timeframe on the South Shore Drill Team project?

A: We'll break ground in November, and probably take a year to a year and a half to build it

Q: What's the actual exterior?

A: This is a Swiss made fiber cement panel. This is stainless steel siding, and various kinds of metal. It has a grass roof here, on the top of the building. This is a gym that converts to a theatre, so there's a stage back here. This is a gynasium, basically full-court gynasium, and then there's these telescoping seats come up and this opens up to a stage. You can perform there. This is a cafeteria. There's also day care, parking, and then there's other youth programs. Grade school through high school, so maybe 8 to 18.

Q: Is the color set?

A: We're still looking. It will be a colorful building

Q: What kind of stuff would you like to in the future?

A: That I haven't been able to do yet? I'd like to do churches. I've done a couple of prototype churches.

Q: What intriques you so much about church architecture?

A: I think it's a kind of collective space . . . a unique building type to explore because people are willing to do a great space. You don't see many great spaces anymore. What's the great space that's been built in Chicago in the past 25 years? Is there one? But if you go back further, I would say the Field Museum lobby is a great space. Even the waterworks building over here is pretty fantastic inside, but people think in terms of form now - it's really kind of form oriented, but not so much space oriented. I'm interested more in space than in form, I would say. It's about exploring the integration of space structure and material - bringing those in to an interdependent relationship.

Q: It's not because you're an excessively religious person?

A: No - I'm interested in that in a kind of a scholarly way. I've studied different religions.

Q: You've mentioned you'd also like to take on bigger projects. Does that include residential high-rises?

A: Not really, because those are usually done with developers and there's not many developers out there that want to do something interesting. Because you need a good client. You can't have someone who comes to you and just wants to do a formula.

Q: Is there a dearth of good clients in Chicago?

A: No, I think that they're out there. You just have to be somewhat selective. You have to look for more open-minded people, that are willing to explore something. That's what I look for in a client. Not someone who comes to me knowing they want. I don't work with those kind of people.

Q: Who are some other Chicago architects whose work impresses you?

A: Doug Garofalo, and Dan Wheeler and Jeanne Gang. Brininstool+Lynch is good, too.

Q: What about specific buildings?

A: The Pantheon. Crown Hall The Salk Institute. The Bregenz Art Museum by Peter Zumthor. You have to see that. I also saw the Bath at Vals, but I think the Art Museum is better. Herzog and DeMeuron. I like Sejima.

Q: She was a finalist at IIT for the Student Center?

A: Yeah, she should have won - it would have been finished about two years before . . .

Ronan takes Jersey


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