John Ronan Architects Designs ETFE Cushion Facade at IIT

"I wanted to do a light, cloudlike building that made Crown Hall look heavy by comparison," says architect John Ronan, referring to the campus's iconic Mies van der Rohe building.
Ed Kaplan Family Institute IIT John Ronan ETFE Facade

“I wanted to do a light, cloudlike building that made Crown Hall look heavy by comparison,” says John Ronan, whose namesake firm designed the Kaplan Institute. With this image in mind, Ronan proposed cladding the new structure in ETFE cushions, a substitute for glass curtain walls hitherto unseen in Chicago. Courtesy John Ronan Architects


Not accustomed to explaining himself, Mies van der Rohe did on occasion refer to his work as “skin-and-bones architecture.” The Illinois Institute of Technology, for which he designed a master plan and several buildings, most famously Crown Hall, virtually makes an ethos of this anatomical analogy.

But the campus’s newest building, a student center and hub for interdisciplinary learning, strays from the formula. Its dissent is sly, maintaining a Mies-ish massing but inverting Mies’s monochromy.

The cantilevered upper register of the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship is wrapped in a bright-white veneer of ETFE, a high-performance plastic often substituted for glass. The building’s architect, John Ronan, is no iconoclast, insisting that Mies, a self-styled technophile, “would have loved” such a “technologically advanced material.” (Ronan jokes that his office had to work with a “skin-and-bones budget.”)

Ed Kaplan Family Institute IIT John Ronan ETFE Facade

Air is continuously pumped into the membrane cavity, regulated by a rooftop weather center that “talks to the heating and cooling elements throughout the day,” says Ronan. “It’s all automatic.” Courtesy John Ronan Architects


More membrane than sandwich, each ETFE foil cushion comprises four distinct fritted layers. The middle two interpolations move independently to better modulate solar gain; compare this with Mies’s single-paned glass walls, Ronan says. Consequently, the system, which is pneumatically activated, changes with the weather.

Depending on the (mis)alignment of the layers, “you might get a moiré effect so that you can see inside, or you might get something more translucent,” Ronan explains. He likens the bands of ETFE to a cloud, which overstates things. But another analogy of his works better: Late at night, when other campus buildings have gone dark, the Kaplan Institute gleams in the dusk, glowing “like a lantern.”

Project: Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, Illinois Institute of Technology
Location: Chicago
Product: Texlon ETFE foil cushions

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Categories: Architecture