Ralph Johnson: Pure Designer

  

It can take a decade or more to establish oneself as an architect. Not so Ralph Johnson. Within a few years of his masters and arriving at Perkins&Will, he was already working shoulder to shoulder with practice leaders and winning the industry’s most coveted honors. 

Today, more than four decades later, his portfolio features hundreds of projects, many of national and international renown. He is one of the United States’ most celebrated architects. In 2022, AIA Chicago recognized him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Left profile of Ralph Johnson leaning against a pale gray wooden doorframe in blue oxford and sport jacket.
“Before Ralph, there wasn’t a known designer at the firm,” says Jerry Johnson.

A celebrated designer in his own right, Jerry established himself working alongside Ralph on many of the award-winning projects of the 1990s. “There were people who excelled in various roles, but Ralph is a pure designer,” Jerry explains, adding that his mentor could easily have claimed a rightful place among his starchitect peers.

An unusual brand of ambition never compelled Ralph to stand apart from his colleagues, however. In fact, for many, Ralph Johnson and Perkins&Will are synonymous—it is hard to imagine one without the other. Their legacies are now bound together.

Ralph’s body of work—its breadth, its poetry, its expressiveness—is as dazzling and coherent as any starchitect’s. But its signatures never upstage the individual building’s purpose or how it responds to the client’s needs.
Aerial view looking down on the Shanghai Natural History Museum's spiral shape against the backdrop of the city
He hails from the land of skyscrapers, but Ralph is dedicated to the human scale. He is, he says with a chuckle, “more of a groundscraper architect.”
Shanghai Natural History Museum, Shanghai

Some of Ralph’s signatures are in his method. Gina Berndt, a colleague since she joined the Chicago studio with The Environments Group 15 years ago, remembers her first impression: “I could see his personal nature, sketching away. He sits quietly in a crit or when looking at someone’s work. Then he can just immediately edit with such clarity of thought and precision.”

Other signatures are in his character. “He has a way of taking notice of things around him that others don’t immediately perceive,” Gina says. Over time, she has also discovered Ralph’s wit. “He’s got a way of reading a situation and making a quick comment,” she adds. “You don’t expect him to be so funny.”

Ralph’s groundscrapers give form to that other Chicago ethos, the down-to-earth vision of the Prairie School.

Placing a high value on context, local materials, and American craftsmanship, the Prairie School believed architecture should be born of its environment. Perkins&Will co-founder Dwight Perkins was in the movement. Frank Lloyd Wright was its best-known practitioner.

As it happened, Ralph grew up down the street from Wright’s R.W. Evans House on Chicago’s South Side. He recalls noticing that the house seemed especially alive: “The other houses next to it were just sitting on top of the ridge in a static manner, and this one was projecting out and grabbing the site, engaging the site in a different way.” Ralph has since built his career out of re-creating that vitality in his own designs.

Ralph and principals Bryan Schabel and Gina Berndt reflect on a few of the buildings that have defined Ralph’s youth and career in Chicago.
Photo: courtesy of Chicago Tribune. Music: “Envision” by Amaranth Cove on Epidemic Sound
Tinkham Veale University Center, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland
AIA National Honor Award, 2016
The Tinkham Veale University Center is an exceptionally elegant groundscraper.

Carl Knutson, design director of Perkins&Will’s D.C. studio, singles it out as a favorite. “Low to the ground” and “thoughtfully integrated into the site,” the building dissolves some of the most conventional physical boundariesbetween indoors and outdoors, between ground, floor, and ceiling. The resulting openness draws people along the expansive views of the sky and nearby cultural institutions such as the Cleveland Museum of Art. And that was, after all, the brief: to bridge the separation between the university’s two historic campuses, creating a connector and a destination for the community.

The Center does stand out on campus, but its grandeur does not outshine its neighbors. It elevates the conversation within and among campus spaces, a built expression of its educational purpose.

Ralph’s early collaboration with planning genius Bill Brubaker was an opportunity to explore using connections between the inside and outside of a building to organize spaces into a strong sense of place.

When Ralph joined Perkins&Will, the firm’s only studio was devoted almost exclusively to healthcare projects. Then in the early 1980s, demand for school buildings cycled back. “I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” Ralph says. He began designing K–12 schools with Bill Brubaker, who had been keeping up with industry trends. 

Over the next decade, with Bill planning and Ralph designing, the two architects reinvigorated Perkins&Will’s legacy of innovative school design. Their collaboration lent itself to a “kit of parts” scheme, and Ralph put his Prairie School influence to work playing with regional materials and forms. During this time he evolved the approach that would later produce closely tailored responses to site and context such as the Tinkham Veale University Center.

The “kit of parts” approach draws on Larry Perkins’s concept for the Crow Island School, which modernized children’s education in the 1930s.
Click the image to learn how Ralph designed a “city for kids” with the Perry Education Village in Ohio.
Ralph insists that the idea and solution take time.

“It doesn’t strike like lightning,” he says. “You learn through experience and struggling.” Of course, architecture is necessarily iterative, and architects are always up against the clock, so Ralph is an obsessive sketcher. He starts inside, with the program and planning; then he turns to the outside. His process consists of “working back and forth, inside again, outside again, thinking about the interior and then the exterior at the same time.”

Carl Knutson, Ralph, Steven Turckes, Tom Mozina, Jerry Johnson, Ron Stelmarski, and Manuel Cadrecha describe Ralph’s sketching and process.
Music: “The Plan” by Wendy Marcini and Elvin Vanguard on Epidemic Sound
To get to that “honest,” transparent relationship between the inside and outside of the building, Ralph continually draws through the challenges. When he isn’t in a bookstore or tracking down art in the city, he’s in the studio, drawing. Drawing, drawing, drawing.
Colored pencil sketch on cover of Progressive Architecture 1986
Ralph’s drawings for the Music Center at Pacific Lutheran University won the 31st annual Progressive Architecture Awards, his first magazine cover, in 1984.
Carl recalls an extraordinary unfolding sketch of the Kenya Women’s and Children’s Wellness Centre, in Nairobi.
Music: “The Plan” by Wendy Marcini and Elvin Vanguard on Epidemic Sound
“He had these loose squiggly-line sketches, but there was always a lot of intent and purpose in them.”

That is why the drawings are powerful, says Steven Turckes, Perkins&Will’s current primary and secondary education practice leaderbecause “Ralph designs in sketch form.” The drawings are two-dimensional, but the idea is three-dimensional in his head.

“Some designers are very plan oriented,” Steven explains. “They’re figuring out the floor plan and then think, ‘OK, let’s figure out what that means when it goes vertical.’ Ralph has got all of those axes happening simultaneously.”

Keeping all the axes in play is especially important in the design of hospitals, Ralph attests. Very tight technological requirements must find expression at the most human scale.

Though not, strictly speaking, a groundscraper like the Kenya Women’s and Children’s Wellness Centre, the Rush University Medical Center triumphs from the same careful understanding of how the building type needs to work on its particular site, wedged between Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway and the remainder of the Medical Center’s campus.

As with the early groundscrapers, the kit-of-parts approach proved critical. “We didn’t force the technology to do something it didn’t want to do,” Ralph says of the inside-outside process. “We followed strict rules for the design of healthcare and then worked with those to create the architecture and sense of place, scaling the building down into humane environments.”

Hospital functions were divided between a square base, housing “onstage” operations, and a curvilinear butterfly tower, housing patient beds. The base then responds to the expressway with a billboardlike façade while the tower engages the campus with greenspace, courtyards, and circulation areas.

After more than four decades of consistent design excellence, Ralph shows no signs of reining in his imagination. Projects and prospects on multiple continents, in cities across the U.S.—and at home—are keeping him fully engaged in the currents and challenges of designing the built environment.

Asked recently by Bryan Schabel, his successor as design director of the Chicago studio, whether there is a building type he has not yet designed, Ralph quickly replied “a spiritual structure.” It seems the thought of what to do next is never far from his mind.

When the day comes that Ralph does add a spiritual structure to his portfolio, we can be certain it will express the first principles that ground every building he designs: respond to program, respond to site, respond to context.
“We respect him tremendously. His words carry weight”: Pat has led Perkins&Will’s design excellence initiatives with Ralph since she founded the Miami studio 26 years ago.
Music: “Signals of Time” by Hampus Naeselius on Epidemic Sound