Essay in Steel and Glass
John Ronan always wanted to be an architect. Even as a kid he was drawing house plans and building structures with Legos. He’s still drawing plans. In fact, if you’ve walked by the new Poetry Foundation building at Dearborn and Superior, you can see his passion come to life. Ronan’s firm was the architect.
The 860 building is home to many architects today, including Ronan, his wife Clare, also an architect, and their two daughters, ages 5 and 1. The building is a draw for many reasons, and John and his wife had their own.
“As architects, the bar was set a little higher when we were looking for a new place,” he says. “We need to like the building, as well as the neighborhood and layout of the unit. And we just kept circling back to 860.”
For him, the 860|880 buildings are Mies van der Rohe’s “essay in steel.”
Mies was working through problems of the steel and glass building, and this is his statement about it, says Ronan.
“This building was a first of its kind. Because its influence was so widespread, and its design imitated so many times, it’s easy to lose sight of how special it really is,” comments Ronan. “ Because it was the first one of its kind, Mies poured an enormous amount of time and energy into its design. There’s a definitive ‘statement’ quality to it. Subsequent iterations of the type looked for ways to make it cheaper, and ended up diluting the purity of the original approach.”
Unlike many architects today, Mies wasn’t interested in form as an agenda. Form, he believed, was a natural result of working through the structural issues of the design, and dependent on the building’s structural material, says Ronan. Ultimately, the 860|880 buildings represent what a steel and glass building would be if you distilled it down to its barest essentials. “Skin and bones architecture,” Mies called it.
“That’s why it’s so copied,” Ronan explains. “It contains certain truths. It wasn’t about self-expression. It was about working through a problem and finding a solution that could be used again, elsewhere. 860|880 is Mies’ understanding of what a steel and glass building should be.”
This simplicity also does something else. It allows for multiple readings. If a building has a funny shape or looks like an object, it doesn’t allow for multiple readings—it is that shape, and nothing more. “Distilling the building down to its essentials opens up possibilities of different spatial readings—from different viewpoints, and under different light conditions,” says Ronan. “I think that’s what Mies was talking about when he said ‘less is more.’”
Ronan also likes the positioning of the two buildings, which allows one to experience the inside and outside at the same time. “You’re inside the unit, but looking at the adjacent tower, which offers a holistic understanding of the project,” says Ronan.
Yet the building isn’t so rarefied that you can’t “live” in it. Ronan and his wife are raising their two daughters in the building and in the city. “You can walk to the playground, the lake, the store,” says Ronan. “We didn’t want to live on an empty street in the suburbs where you have to drive everywhere.”
The sunrise over the lake doesn’t hurt either. “It’s interesting to see how the building frames the lake,” he says. The ceiling heights in the unit are such that the horizon line is almost exactly halfway between floor and ceiling. “It takes on the quality of an abstract painting, like a Mark Rothko,” he says. “Sometimes sky is very distinct from water, sometimes they blur together without a line demarcating one from the other. It’s always different.”