Chicago architecture lovers already thoroughly embrace John Ronan’s Poetry Foundation building. So what more is there to see? The small exhibit Iterations: John Ronan’s Poetry Foundation, secluded in a hushed downstairs gallery, features delicate models and expressive sketches produced early in the architect’s design process.
Ronan experiments with space through intuitive, handcrafted techniques before refining his designs by digital means. Installed chronologically, the narrative begins with schematic concept diagrams in pen and pencil. Fast scribbles are quickly scratched on top of existing site surveys. Next, these layered plans pop into 3D. A dozen tiny massing models test out distinct approaches for the L-shaped site on its bustling River North street corner. Gardens are preeminent. As the show continues to unfold, the trial and error process applies to experiments in form, programmatic relationships, and skin. The prototypes of the Poetry Foundation’s defining street-front screen look wildly different from one another. Gold painted cardboard feels pleasantly whimsical.
The show banks on the trending appeal of the analog. Ronan is old school. Glorifying the heritage process behind an acclaimed contemporary building feels equal parts hipster and grey-haired modernist. The models and sketches are quick, but highly articulate: This is the suave pseudo-mess of an architect’s architect.
By comparison, the few digital prints fail to engage visitors. Without tangible texture or gesture, they lack a spirit. Their inclusion in the exhibit instills a message that technology displaces, rather than broadens, our sensory capabilities. The gallery text reads that Ronan works back and forth between the physical and the digital, but it is not convincing that digital practices have creative value for Ronan.
At times, it does not feel like experimentation so much as nostalgia.
The strength of this showcase, however, is in the mystique of the ideas that were scrapped. What else could our new landmark have looked like? Which iconic screen facade would you have picked? The buildings that never existed are the exhibit’s most poetic moments. Here, we are able to put ourselves behind Ronan’s desk and make a choice.
Ronan’s process appears effortless—even just flicked out of his wrist—but it is legitimized by precise design detailing, has already earned the architect comparisons to modernist heroes. Beyond creative development, however, this show certainly perpetuates the modernist identity of the architect as solitary genius. In its mission statement, John Ronan Architects identifies its studio culture as “interdisciplinary and collaborative.” Yet, Ronan alone is repeatedly referred to as the singular creator. It is unclear whether the omission of collaboration was purely a curatorial discretion, or whether it is an accurate reflection of Ronan’s studio. The bright national spotlight on Ronan is feeding the culture of the starchitect. Perhaps his brand relies on it.
Nevertheless, this exhibit demonstrates that the old ways still work. The Poetry Foundation building is well loved as a graceful meditative gem amid downtown glitz. Hopefully, museum visitors unfamiliar with the building will be moved to go experience it first hand. Because of the exclusion of photos, renders, and scaled human figures from the exhibit, the building which ultimately resulted from the creative process on display may be a challenge for many visitors to visualize. Unfortunately, the space constraints in the gallery seem to necessitate conventional, high security displays, which lend a formality to the work. Handmade models lose some of their approachable humility when displayed within a jewel box. Abstract sketches and cardboard are a stretch from real space. The interior design, in particular, is hardly represented. Even material expression, so impactful in the real experience of the building, feels distant from the work on view.
But the exhibit, curated by Karen Kice, may not be attempting to translate the full arc of the design journey from point A to B. The show instead offers fleeting snapshots of intuitive, loose exploratory moments. It is probably too small of an exhibit to warrant its own trip to the Art Institute, but its position adjacent to the sprawling Christopher Williams retrospective benefits Iterations with a healthy cross-current of visitors. For those with the capability to imagine real space from folded paper provocations, it is a brief, intimate communion with one of Chicago’s most admired contemporary architects.