Chicago Park District Headquarters. Photo © James Florio
Choosing a cover is not always straightforward, but sometimes you just have a slam dunk. The building on the cover of this month’s issue is designed by John Ronan Architects (JRA). This new headquarters for the Chicago Park District incorporates a park and field house—with one of the most luxe basketball courts I’ve ever seen—for the community, on a former brownfield site. The community in this case is the Brighton Park neighborhood in the city’s southwest side, where nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty. Embracing circularity in design in more ways than one, the architect clad the round structure in reclaimed brick from demolished local industrial facilities. By using that common brick that’s ubiquitous throughout the city, Ronan at the same time roots the headquarters in Chicago building culture. In short, it’s a project that gets a lot of things right—and it does so by leading with architecture. From formal, spatial, and material perspectives, it’s a masterful work.
This moment in our culture is a confused one, where architects are being called upon to tackle myriad issues, many of them not related to design as we have known it. And students are struggling in design studio to address those same issues through the formal qualities traditionally extolled. It is those qualities that have allowed architects to have the most significant impact.
Ronan’s 15-person firm—included among the first cohort of Design Vanguards when RECORD launched the program in 2000—has, in its nearly 25 years of practice, produced a body of work, predominantly in its home city of Chicago, that shows how architects can make a positive contribution by leading with design. JRA has simultaneously come up with innovations for sustainable and socially equitable solutions in projects that range from the ETFE-wrapped Innovation Center at IIT to the Gary Comer Youth Center on Chicago’s South Side and a hybrid library/senior affordable housing building on the Near North Side.
The Chicago Park District Headquarters is another hybrid—one that provides both offices and recreational spaces. This summer issue of RECORD celebrates recreational facilities both new and old, among them a midcentury project by one of the best architects you’ve never heard of—Jean-François Zevaco. The Casablanca-born, Paris-trained Zevaco, who died in 2003, built a number of audacious buildings in his home country of Morocco, including his own house, whose pinwheeling plan broke all conventions. On a trip to Casablanca several years ago, I visited some of Zevaco’s projects, as well as other works of Moroccan Modernism, with architects Mohamed Amine Siana (a 2016 Design Vanguard) and Driss Kettani. The three of us tried to see Zevaco’s house, seemingly abandoned, up close. We contemplated scaling the walls that closed the compound off from the street, but we ultimately thought better of that idea.
The work by Zevaco in this issue, the Sidi Harazem thermal baths east of Fez, is in a similarly bad state. But, in an attempt to keep it from the same fate as the house, Toronto-based Moroccan architect and educator Aziza Chaouni has embarked on a mission to make people aware of the spa complex, so it can be restored, and has had it documented by fellow Toronto-based Moroccan photographer Younes Bounhar. It was Chaouni’s memories of visiting Sidi Harazem as a child that spurred her efforts, and my memories of seeing Zevaco’s work that impelled me to include an example of it here.
The creative impulse that leads to such significant built work—the kind that transforms places and lingers in our memories—is a testament to the meaningful work that architects do.