An architect with two decades of built work, several books, and dozens upon dozens of awards from the American Institute of Architects, the Architectural League, and the Graham Foundation can hardly be called a dark horse. Yet John Ronan, the single local architect out of the seven recently chosen to advance to the final round to design Barack Obama’s Presidential Center in Chicago, has been cast as one a few times.
“It’s easy to stay under the radar here,” Ronan says when I ask him whether the descriptor helps or hurts. “I think architects know my work, but maybe the general population less so.”
Ronan is now competing to build the project that will define President Obama’s built legacy, a $500 million complex that includes a museum, community gardens, labs, classrooms, and of course, a library, on Chicago’s South Side. The list of finalists for the project, announced in December, includes five firms with New York offices—David Adjaye, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Tod Williams Billie Tsien, SHoP Architects, and Snøhetta—as well as the Paris- and Geneva-based Renzo Piano.
Ronan is conspicuously the only architect working in the city where the project will be built, and his firm is on the smaller side of the list. Yet he has a reputation for being a thoughtful, research-focused architect, whose buildings are carefully tailored based on context and need.
Ronan, who graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1991, began amassing what’s now a long list of built work in the early 2000s, focusing particularly on schools and institutions. Much of it is not far from the two neighborhoods that have been chosen as potential sites for the Obama library, such the Gary Comer Youth Center. This welcoming cluster of community spaces is clad in gem-toned panels, topped by a glowing glass tower that looks almost like an exclamation point atop the rooftop garden, speckled with skylights.
In fact, the Obamas have already held two major events here. “I also remember back when this center was just an idea,” the First Lady said at a speech set there in 2012. “And it is really amazing to see this phenomenal facility. I remember when it was just being built, and I can’t begin to tell you how much it means to be here, seeing this thriving, inspiring, beautiful place just minutes from where I grew up.” The news conference to announce Chicago as the home of the future presidential library, in 2015, was also held within the building.
You can find Ronan’s work sprinkled across the city. There’s the Poetry Foundation, an elegant and understated downtown building edged by black louvres revealing hints of golden light from the interior. It’s a building full of “subtle, slowly unfolding pleasures,” as Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin succinctly put it when it opened in 2011. “Ronan’s refined design offers a civilized antidote to this crudeness,” Kamin added, referring to the thickets of condo towers that have sprung up in neighborhoods that border the downtown over the past decade.
Refining the city’s clamor without completely dampening it is a theme. In October, visitors to the Chicago Cultural Center, the hub of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, were greeted by an outdoor installation called the Leaf Lounge. Alongside an otherwise empty interstitial space alongside the building, Ronan’s team filled industrial gabion walls with crinkled, recently fallen leaves to create a sitting area protected by wind and the Loop’s chaos.
Still, look closely enough and you’ll find hints of big urban ideas in Ronan’s work. A seemingly straightforward commission to study the neighborhood around Loyola University’s L stop, for example, evolved into a radical speculative proposal called Superelevated. Ronan’s team imagined replacing the 150-year-old train line with a maglev monorail, from which hangs a separated bike and pedestrian path stretching all the way into the city. Next to the station, there’s a rental hub for a fleet of electric cars—designed to make the L a more efficient form of multimodal transport to and from the city’s extensive suburbs. “It’s a big idea, though, which requires quite a bit of investment,” Ronan says, pointing out that the proposal was more of a thought experiment about a prototype L station in the future. Yet, as the city’s train system gets older, he adds, “We need to think about it sooner rather than later.”
Over the next few months, the seven teams chosen to design proposals for the Obama Presidential Center will travel to Washington, D.C., to present their ideas. The nonprofit will announce its decision within the first half of this year. It’s likely to be a tough decision: All seven teams have extensive experience, and some, such as Renzo Piano, Tod Williams Billie Tsien, and Snøhetta, have specific experience with libraries and museums that could lend itself to the job. Ronan, too, has multiple educational and institutional projects under his belt—some of them in the same neighborhood as both possible sites for the Obama library. And while his team may be smaller than some of the other firms on the list, it seems almost appropriate for a city whose psyche has been tied to its relationship with its bigger brother for more than a century.
“The model of my firm is different than the other firms,” he says. “I don’t have 100 people, and I’m not trying to do 20 projects at the same time. It’s more personally focused, and it’s about doing a really thorough job and picking our opportunities carefully. At the end of the day, I’d rather have five great buildings than 20 good buildings.”