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John Ronan is an accomplished Chicago architect. He made news in 2016 as one of seven finalists selected to present designs for the Barack Obama Presidential Library—the only local architect in consideration.

by Nikki Snodgrass, Media Relations Manager

Over the years, Ronan has won numerous awards and his work has been exhibited around the world, including at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Architectural League of New York's Urban Center. His firm, John Ronan Architects, has been the recipient of AIA Institute National Honor Awards, for the Poetry Foundation and the Gary Comer Youth Center —both in Chicago. 

1. What project have you enjoyed working on most during your career thus far?

Probably the Poetry Foundation because it was such a unique project. From the very beginning, it had an almost make-believe quality about it—a woman leaves a large sum of money to a small arts organization which decides to build a “home for poetry.” It’s like something you might dream up for a school studio project. On another level the Poetry Foundation was an ideal platform for the kind of architecture I like to do, which is about relationships rather than form—architecture that has to be experienced to be understood and appreciated, primarily about space and how you move through it.

I think that too much of contemporary architecture is about image, which results in a lot of arbitrary form-making and visual one-liners which can be consumed in a single glance. I wanted the Poetry Foundation to be different, something subtle and rich which would reward experience and attention to detail. I also wanted it to have a mysterious quality. Rather than giving it away all at once, the visitor [is] drawn into it and [has] to move through it to understand it and fully appreciate the space.

2. How has Chicago been an inspiration for your work?

Of course, Chicago has this great architectural history, which is both an inspiration and a burden. The question becomes, how does this history inform your work? It’s my belief that every city has its own DNA, an underlying character that shapes its culture. I think as an architect, identifying and understanding this fundamental character is a precondition to making positive contributions to it. 

I would argue that there is a pragmatism which underlies Chicago’s character, perhaps because of the types of industries which call it home. The architects who have succeeded here—from the early architects through Mies van der Rohe to the present day—could grasp this fundamental character and extract poetry from it. Chicago is a tough, no-nonsense place which values hard work, and I think you see this reflected in its architectural production. 

If you think of the buildings on which Chicago’s reputation rests—buildings like the Monadnock, 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive, Marina City, Crown Hall, Sears [Willis] Tower and so on—they are all ordinary building types: office buildings, apartment buildings, schools. While other cities are known for their museums and monuments, I would argue this is not the case with Chicago. Chicago is known for these very dignified but fundamentally practical buildings which have somehow transcended pragmatism to become architecture. So if you are going to be an architect in Chicago I think this has to inform your work. I strive for these same qualities and seek to address the pragmatic aspects while at the same time attempting to transcend them, and occasionally succeed.

3. What is Chicago’s biggest built environment challenge?

Well, other than the weather, I would say there is a certain cultural insecurity about Chicago which holds it back, most notably in architecture. I recently attended an elaborate celebration at an important cultural institution in town, and the local benefactor who sponsored the event flew in a chef and his team from New York to prepare the dinner. Now think about that for a moment. With all the amazing chefs in Chicago, this guy feels the need to fly in a chef from New York, which speaks to a certain insecurity.

And it’s no different in architecture—important cultural commissions in Chicago almost never go to local architects, and rarely ever have. The great museums by Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies were built in New York and Berlin, not Chicago; the Art Institute hired a firm out of Boston instead of Louis Sullivan to build their museum, and so on. So while Chicagoans love to celebrate their rich architectural legacy, they are sometimes reluctant to support and nurture the culture that produces it. This is our challenge. It is important for all of us, but in particular the leaders of our cultural institutions and the wealthy elite, to understand that we have an important role to play in building a culture, not merely importing culture.

4. What is the one project type you have not worked on yet but would like to design?

I’ve always wanted to design a church. I think it presents an opportunity to design a building in which the space, the structure and material enter into an interdependent relationship—not many other [building] types afford this possibility. Also, because a religious building almost demands a transcendent response, something spiritual, and other building types don’t come with these expectations. Of course, a presidential library would be nice, too [smiles].