Since 1976, award-winning architect and Chicago native Ralph Johnson has been the Global Design Director for acclaimed architecture firm Perkins + Will. His creativity and versatility place him among the most significant designers of our time.
by Nikki Snodgrass, Media Relations Manager
Ralph Johnson’s design approach is humanistic with an emphasis on process. The resulting projects respond to the environment in which they exist and compliment the surrounding culture and setting. Johnson’s award-winning local work is widely recognizable to Chicago residents; there's William Jones College Preparatory High School, Rush University Medical Center Hospital Tower, the Contemporaine residential tower and the O’Hare International Airport Terminal 5.
As is true for many designers, Johnson is recognized as an artist in his own right. His work has been featured at the Art Institute of Chicago, and he was twice named a “Chicagoan in the Arts” by the Chicago Tribune.
Here’s a bit more about his favorite projects, his engagement with CAF and designs that he would be interested in working on in the future.
What project have you enjoyed working on the most during your career?
Working on the two schools I did, Perspectives Charter School and William Jones College Prep for Chicago Public Schools, would be tied for my most rewarding working experiences. Being a lifetime resident of Chicago and a graduate of Chicago Public Schools, I had always wanted to design a school in this city. After having done many award-winning schools nationally and internationally, I was finally able to design two schools for Chicago.
Name your favorite Chicago building.
The Robie House has always been my favorite because it remains the model of what Midwest modernism can be.
What five things can you not live without?
Family, books, talented colleagues to work with, 2H pencils and 8.5-by-11-inch tracing pads for working on airplanes and in hotels.
If you could collaborate with any historic Chicago architect, who would it be and why?
I have always wondered what Andrew Rebori would have been like to work with. He was somewhat out of the Chicago mainstream, but he had a very unique and individual voice within Chicago architecture.
Why is it important for you to be engaged with CAF?
CAF is the voice of architecture to the entire community of Chicago. It is important for all Chicago architects to support and participate in achieving the vision and goals of CAF. I have always enjoyed being asked to participate in the Design Dialogues series because they expose the general public to the process of how architecture comes to be and how architects think.
If you were not an architect, what would you be?
I would probably have been some kind of artist. I still enjoy watercolor and sketching when I have free time during my travels.
What is the one project type you have not worked on yet but would like to design?
I have always wanted to design a religious structure. They are the purest form of space and emotion.
What is Chicago’s biggest built environment challenge?
The biggest challenge for Chicago is to continue to develop its public space and facilities across all parts of the city to reinforce a continuous social fabric. Having been a resident of both north and south sides, it is easy to think of the city divided into two worlds. This is good for baseball (Cubs and Sox), but bad for urbanism. Our challenge is to counteract and provide unification.
How does CAF inspire people to discover why design matters?
The tours that CAF conducts show how generations of individual buildings work together to positively impact the day-to-day lives of the residents of Chicago.
Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright?
A tough choice of course, but Frank Lloyd Wright was formative in my deciding to become an architect. His house on the southwest side at 99th and Longwood Drive was my first exposure to serious architecture in grammar school, and my first architecture book was his "A Testament," published in 1957. The dramatic way this house related to the ridge along Longwood Drive has always stayed with me as a lesson in the relationship of building and site.