Alumni Q+A: Ralph Johnson MArch ’73
Designing some of the world’s most respected cultural institutions at global design firm Perkins+Will has garnered Ralph Johnson MArch ’73 much national and international acclaim. Johnson is a humble visionary who was honored to hear the news in October 2015 that he was elected to the National Academy – an institution devoted to building and sharing the heritage of the arts in America – for his profound contributions. Peer-elected by artists and architects, Johnson is one of only 19 National Academicians selected for this annual honor.
As Global Design Director at Perkins+Will for nearly 30 years, Johnson’s spectrum of projects is vast, ranging from civic, cultural, and educational to commercial projects. Among his notable works are the Shanghai Natural History Museum and several prominent Chicago buildings: the Rush University Medical Center Hospital Tower, the O’Hare International Terminal, and the Boeing Headquarters. A highlight of the Harvard Design: Chicago GSD Alumni + Friends Weekend in October 2015 was his illuminating tour of the urban and compact William Jones College Preparatory High School.
Johnson has been honored with more than 150 design awards, including eight National AIA Awards, more than 50 regional Honor Awards from the American Institute of Architects, and a Progressive Architecture Design Award. Additionally, he has exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Paris Biennale, and the São Paulo Biennale. Johnson’s passion and vision are apparent in his answers to the questions below.
Tell us about your background. When did you realize you would be designer / architect?
I spent my childhood years in Chicago’s Sherman Park and Mount Greenwood neighborhoods where I was able to learn about architecture early by exploring the city and its rich architectural heritage. In elementary school, the first building that inspired me was a Frank Lloyd Wright house on the South Side of Chicago. I found the way the hill worked with the building to be captivating. Wright was always so good with associating structures to sites by coalescing buildings with nature. I carried that memory with me growing up and took courses in drafting through the Chicago Public Schools.
What previous degrees do you have?
I received my Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Illinois in 1971.
Why did you choose the GSD?
I wanted to be exposed to a different philosophy of architectural education and to a global view of architecture that was only possible because the GSD attracts the best architects in the world to be part of its faculty.
What is the most significant thing you learned while at the GSD?
Through my direct exposure to a number of great architects, I learned that over time you should develop your own personal approach to architecture.
Was there anyone at the GSD that had great influence on you?
The influence of Team 10 (or Team X) was very strong when I was attending the GSD. I was also fortunate enough to have shadowed Professor Shadrach Woods whose work I had always admired, most notably through the book Architecture for People on his firm Candilis-Josic-Woods, which explained his philosophy of humanistic modernism.
What’s your favorite memory of the GSD?
I was the first class in Gund Hall, and it was a great experience to be taught in an environment that broke the design school mold.
What advice do you have for GSD students and/or alumni?
The educational experience at GSD is a foundation for a life-long learning process as you develop as an architect or planner.
Your projects span education institutions, museums, corporate headquarters and more. How did the GSD prepare you for this diversity of projects?
The GSD provided multiple studio offerings of varying building types of which I was able to take advantage. I feel it gave me an early leg up in my career to have such a wide breadth of educational experiences on which to lean.
Who or what inspires you and your work?
Two things inspire my work. The first is traveling and experiencing architecture in diverse settings. The second are cinema and literature, which have a strong influence on my ideas. With a director like Alfred Hitchcock, architecture was a huge point of emphasis in his films. Buildings and structures help to articulate a sense of place – an element he thought was extremely important to his sets. I associate with this kind of ‘world-building’ and sequencing of space within my field as an architect, and cinematographers like Hitchcock inspire me in that regard. Within literature, an author like Haruki Murakami influences me with his ability to explain a sense of place, and immerse me into his world, making me feel like I am there. Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast did this well too by taking me on a journey without saying a lot—words can transport us.
Can you describe your design philosophy? How has it evolved over time?
When thinking about how to describe my personal design philosophy, I realize it has to do primarily with a response to context – a responsive modernism that is at the same time humanistic. I believe buildings should not be neutral skin, but instead, they should talk about the lives of the people within them. I have worked on buildings all over the world in Africa, China, and Chicago; the results are all very different in how they respond to their respective contexts. When working on projects, I’m always trying to pull something unique out of a particular physical or cultural context to create an exceptional building for everyone whose lives are touched by it. Every project is different, and each requires a different approach depending on the context and civic purpose wanting to be interpreted. Today, with the homogeneity of globalization, it’s more important than ever to respond to and reinforce the uniqueness of a place.
You have spent a vast majority of your career at Perkins+Will. How has your career evolved with so much of your experience at one firm?
The most impactful evolution or change I’ve observed over the past forty years is the global nature of architecture and design. At Perkins+Will, we have gone from three offices in 1976 to now twenty-three offices worldwide. This has allowed a deeper diversity of thought to be cultivated within our firm and in architecture in general. We also now have a more profound concern for the social impact of architecture; it especially true in healthcare where we are going beyond sheer function and focusing more on creating environments that heal.
What are you working on today?
One distinct project I am working on currently is called Riverline – a major residential/retail development in the South Loop of Chicago. It will help bridge the downtown Loop towards the south end of the city and feature a unique river walk woven between new residential structures and the existing River City building. The Northwestern University Ryan/Walters Athletics Center is another substantial project I’m working on that just broke ground in November 2015. It’s a transformational multi-purpose center for the University’s Evanston campus, providing state-of-the-art training spaces, indoor and outdoor practice fields, and a natatorium expansion, all positioned along Lake Michigan. The Research Laboratory for MIT and University of Cincinnati’s Medical Education Center Building are interesting projects that I am involved with as well.
What’s your greatest professional achievement?
Primarily, my work has been dedicated to public education and healthcare in the United States and abroad. Creating connection and community are at the crux of both, with an additive emphasis on health, wellbeing, and service. As a graduate of the Chicago Public Schools, it was a career highlight to work on William Jones College Preparatory High School, where I was presented with an opportunity to strike a positive balance between the high school’s stakeholders and collaboratively expand the possibilities for urban education design. The compact site necessitated an intimate relationship between the school and the surrounding downtown context. It allowed me to interface closely and successfully with Chicago Public Schools, the Public Building Commission, and other parties vested in creating a cutting-edge, 21st-century learning environment. This project is especially significant. As urban populations increase, land resources become scarcer, and innovative solutions to our education needs continue to grow.
In October 2015, you participated in the Harvard Design: Chicago GSD Alumni + Friends Weekend by leading tour of the William Jones College Preparatory High School. What was this experience like to connect with alumni around the challenges, opportunities, and innovations of this project?
I enjoyed catching up with classmates I had not seen in a while and was honored to have the opportunity to explain the high school to the larger GSD community including Dean Mostafavi. The importance of this project is its contribution to the development of the urban vertical school as a typology, and its adaptation of a traditional horizontal organization into a seven-story building.
You designed the highly anticipated nautilus shell inspired Shanghai Natural History Museum that opened in April 2015. How did you land on this concept?
The nautilus shell is one of the purest geometric forms found in nature. We combined this influence with an understanding of traditional Chinese garden design. Through its relationship with the site, it represents the harmony of man and nature; its form is an abstraction of two basic elements of Chinese art and design – mountain and water. In being inspired by Chinese garden design, the shape and internal organization of the building mirrors the form of a nautilus shell, with a spiraling landscaped plane rising out of the museum’s sculpture park, then wrapping around an oval pond. The pond is the central visual focus of the museum’s exhibition route through the building, which begins at the upper level and spirals downward, providing a unique experience for the visitor while reinforcing the nature museum’s message and mission.
Congratulations on being elected to the National Academy. Can you share your feelings on this honor and being included among this esteemed group of artists, designers, and academicians?
It was a tremendous honor being inducted into the National Academy, an institution whose origins date back to a group of uniquely talented artists and architects meeting up casually in 1825. Personally, it’s wonderful to be recognized alongside artists as it asserts that architecture is indeed an art form. A career award provides a kind of validation for my past work, but it also drives me to want to do more and continue contributing to the architectural community in valuable and impactful ways.
Tell us about your work/life balance? What occupies you when you are not working?
My wife Kathy Nagle MArch ’87 is an architect and also a GSD graduate. We have a summer place in Door County, Wisconsin where we spend a lot of our time. Our daughter, Claire, is attending Skidmore College, so we often take time off to visit her in Saratoga Springs.
What would surprise us about you?
I have been playing bluegrass banjo for the last four years.