Ralph Johnson

by Kira Hesser


Ralph Johnson. Shanghai Natural History Museum. “Mysterious Beginnings Exhibit,” (2007). Original sketch. Courtesy the artist  and Perkins+Will.


Shanghai Natural History Museum. “View From South,” (2007). Original sketch, overlaid on: “Night aerial from south,” (2015). Courtesy the artist and Perkins+Will. Photo: Steinkamp Photography ©.


Shanghai Natural History Museum. “View of Sloping Green Roof,” (2007). Original sketch. Courtesy the artist and Perkins+Will.


Shanghai Natural History Museum. “Entry from south,” (2015). Courtesy Perkins+Will. Photo: Steinkamp Photography ©.


Shanghai Natural History Museum. “Central courtyard from ramp ascending the roof,” (2015). Courtesy Perkins+Will. Photo: Steinkamp Photography ©.

Ralph Johnson

Here is where the museum will go, and here is where you’ll leave wanting more

“98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit,” Frank Gehry pronounced last year.

When I run this assessment past Ralph Johnson, Global Design Director at Chicago-based architecture firm Perkins+Will, he liberates a rather gleeful guffaw.

Does he agree?

“I’d say probably 80%. Most of our environment is comprised of these generic buildings that no one’s thought about. They’re just rubberstamping the same house over and over again, the same shopping center, and that’s the majority of the built environment.”

Ralph Johnson’s work has been a lifelong counter-effort to this pandemic structural monotony. His approach involves—first and foremost—designing a building based upon its cultural context.

“We do buildings all over the world: in Africa, China, Chicago, and they’re all different in terms of the result that comes out of the process. It’s always trying to pull something unique out of a particular physical or cultural context that makes a good building, rather than just generic buildings that are the same around the world. I think cities are getting homogeneous as you travel around…a global firm like ourselves has to be really careful of that—how to respond to and reinforce the uniqueness of a place.”

In April, Ralph Johnson and his team of architects at Perkins+Will unveiled their latest project; the brand-new Shanghai Natural History Museum. It is an impressively biodynamic, energy-efficient, culturally-aware edifice that replaces the colonial imprint that had stood in its place for decades—a Natural History Museum in the Neoclassical style.

Johnson’s design—a schematic opposite of its predecessor—was selected from an international design competition. It boasts a nautilus-shaped building whose design elements honor at every corner the shapes and forms found in the exhibits inside.

“I try to use buildings as a teaching tool about what’s going on inside the museum. The building is tied to natural history in a global sense, but it also creates cultural references that are unique to China, including the Chinese water garden tradition and the landscape architecture. That’s where the cell wall and the garden on the outside came from. So [it’s] using different elements of nature in a very abstract way to draw you into the museum and talk about what’s going on inside—the building becomes didactic, or a teaching tool about the mission of the museum.”

With space to house 20 times the number of exhibits of the previous building, the new Shanghai Natural History Museum boasts an intelligent skin that feeds the building on solar and geothermal power, a pond which provides evaporative cooling, and a vegetated roof that collects rain water. All of these features help serve the greater story told within the museum: the planet’s biodiversity and the history of the humanity imprinted upon it.

With a Master of Architecture from Harvard, a membership on the board of Perkins+Will, and a Fellowship of the American Institute of Architects, Johnson recalls that the first building that ever inspired him was an unassuming little Frank Lloyd Wright number on Longwood Drive on the Southwest Side of Chicago. “The way the hill worked dynamically with the site impressed me. The other houses were very traditional; they weren’t that dynamic in terms of how they related to the slope of the land. Wright was so good with buildings associated with their sites. It was certainly one of his stronger attributes, this relation of building to site and nature.”

Johnson asserts this relation of building to site in his own work by bringing the inner happenings of each building to their outside. When asked how he keeps his structures from feeling sterile, he maintains that a building should not be “a neutral skin but it should be talking about the lives of the people in the building.

The sterility comes from when it’s just an abstract envelope.”

As for a personal design philosophy, Johnson conveys that, “I think it has to do with a response to context—a responsive modernism. Not generic modernism. I’m not a traditionalist by any means, but I’m doing modern architecture that somehow is also humanistic.”

To the question of whether or not architects have a moral duty, Johnson is squarely in the affirmative.

“Definitely, an environmental and social duty. It’s a big part of our firm: morality, and especially environmental issues. We have to be very responsive to energy and the limited assets we have. Buildings are a part of that, maybe not a huge part of it, but they’re part of the issue.

So we’ve signed up for the 2020 challenge to have more high-performance buildings. That’s a big topic for us and a lot of people in the profession. We’re looking at zero-energy buildings: designing buildings that give energy back to the grid…Young people are interested in those issues and they want to go into a building that is environmentally sensitive.”

Along with a couple of projects for Northwestern University, an office building in Beirut, and an MIT laboratory, he and his team are designing a huge development on the Chicago River.

This is a major opportunity for creating a brand-new neighborhood in the city of Chicago, and Perkins+Will plan to unfurl 10 buildings over the next 10 years. The neighborhood will boast both public open space, as well as private spaces. They’ve hired an ecologist to design the landscaping, and it will feature a raised boardwalk along the river.

Ralph Johnson’s humanist approach to architecture envisions a heterogeneous cityscape that—rather than undermining—celebrates the culture of each site. It is a refreshing aberration to find an ethos of culture over globalization driving one of the world’s leading architecture firms.

When asked what he would do if charged with the extraordinary task of rebuilding his own childhood by designing the summer camp of his dreams, Johnson asserted that the design elements would emphasize a transformative dynamism, “Where you can make your own environment, either with modules or stacking things on top of each other. Having something almost like play blocks to allow you to change things so that every year the kids would come in and be able to change their environment and make their own summer camp. I’d place it in the rolling green landscape of Door County, Wisconsin.”