Professor Receives National AIA Award for Library and Public Housing Design

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By Andrew Connor

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When it opened in early 2019, Independence Library, located in the Chicago neighborhood of Irving Park, replaced the neighborhood’s previous public library, a cramped storefront space that had been damaged by fire in 2015. In addition to providing the neighborhood with the much-needed library space, the new Independence Library was also a home; it was created in collaboration with the Chicago Housing Authority, and above the building’s open, airy two-story library are four additional floors providing 44 units of public and affordable housing for senior citizens.

The unique hybrid-use building is the work of College of Architecture Professor John Ronan. This September it received an American Institute of Architects and American Library Association Library Building Award—one of just four such buildings to receive the award for 2020.

Ronan’s design is simultaneously exuberant and pragmatic. The library floors project farther toward the street to emphasize the public nature of that space, while the top four stories are set back. The building is clean, with rounded corners and a white façade clad in corrugated aluminum, but the balconies for the apartment units are painted in bright, eye-popping colors. Similarly, the interior of the library space is bright white and features concrete finishes, but bursts of color shine throughout.

“In a conscious departure from Chicago’s post-war housing blocks, which ‘warehoused’ the poor, the design speaks to the individual to create a building that feels like a home rather than ‘housing,’” says Ronan. “The brightly colored balconies recessed into the façade speak to individuality amidst the collective, enabling residents to identify their home from the street in a conscious attempt to transcend the brutal pragmatism that has characterized Chicago’s past efforts in the area of social housing.”

Earlier this year, Ronan also received recognition for his design of the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, which received a National Architecture award from the AIA, one of the highest honors for a United States-licensed architect.

Photo: The Independence Library in Chicago's Irving Park neighborhood, with the library on the bottom floor and public and affordable housing for senior citizens above (James Florio)