Architect John Ronan talks opportunities, challenges in dynamic facade design

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John Ronan Architects' Urban Filter Office Building, Geneva, Switzerland. (Courtesy John Ronan Architects)

John Ronan Architects’ Urban Filter Office Building, Geneva, Switzerland. (Courtesy John Ronan Architects)

In recent years, building envelope assemblies have become increasingly sophisticated, separating the skin from its traditional, structural function and thus making way for formal experimentation.

John Ronan Architects' Gary Comer Youth Center. (Courtesy John Ronan Architects)

John Ronan Architects’ Gary Comer Youth Center, Chicago. (Courtesy John Ronan Architects)

But this freedom “presents a bewildering challenge,” says John Ronan, founding principal of Chicago-based John Ronan Architects. “What do you do when you can do anything? When the surface of the building asks for no more than a cladding? I think architects are struggling with this question, and that is why one sees so many arbitrary formal tropes in facade design now; anything is possible, but nothing has meaning.” Ronan, who also teaches at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) College of Architecture, will share some of his own experience designing dynamic facades during the afternoon keynote address at November’s Facades+ Chicago conference.

For Ronan, a successful facade design begins with project-specific issues that go beyond environmental performance and client, to include program, identity, social factors, and historical context. As an example, he contrasted his firm’s treatment of the Poetry Foundation and Gary Comer Youth Center buildings.

“At the Comer center, security and safety were primary issues due to violence in the neighborhood, and that influenced the facade design, while at the Poetry Foundation the issue was more one of public interface and creating a sense of intrigue or mystery, to entice someone to come in and explore,” explained Ronan. The IIT Innovation Center presents a third point of reference. “[That facade] is driven by context, that is, the Mies [van der Rohe] campus, but also by technology—the idea that an institute of technology should have something very forward looking and innovative.”

John Ronan Architects' IIT Innovation Center, Chicago. (Courtesy John Ronan Architects)

John Ronan Architects’ IIT Innovation Center, Chicago. (Courtesy John Ronan Architects)

John Ronan Architects' Poetry Foundation, Chicago. (Courtesy John Ronan Architects)

John Ronan Architects’ Poetry Foundation, Chicago. (Courtesy John Ronan Architects)

Regarding the particularities of designing and fabricating facades for his hometown, observed Ronan, “Chicago is still a place where things are made, so we have a deep pool of material and fabrication knowhow to draw upon, and to a certain extent, the world still comes to Chicago for high rise design, a market which is typically on the leading edge of facade technology.”

On the flip side, architects and builders must contend with the Windy City’s alternately hot, wet, and freezing weather. “Sadly, we have to leave buildings out in the rain, and this often dictates which materials and assemblies can and cannot be used Chicago,” said Ronan, tongue in cheek. More seriously, he continued, “The development of rain screen facades has been liberating for us here, because it allows us to enclose the building and then come back in the spring to install the facade.”

Catch up with Ronan and other AEC industry leaders November 5–6 at Facades+ Chicago. Register today or learn more at the Facades+ Chicago website.

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