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Feature> Spotlight: South Shore High
John Ronan Architects finely crafts light, materials, and space to create a prototype high school for Chicago.
The entrance plaza is lighted with rows of column-like fixtures.
Steve Hall / Hedrich Blessing

This project is one section of AN's five-part feature on architectural lighting, "Sharing the Spotlight." Click here to view additional projects.

South Shore High School,

John Ronan Architects
Charter Sills

The new South Shore High School elevates the everyday experience of public education through sensitive use of space, light, and materials. Designed by John Ronan Architects, this finely wrought piece of public design is even more remarkable as it is a prototype for new high school construction throughout the city.

With a goal of maximizing natural daylight, the architects and lighting designers layered in artificial lighting to accentuate public spaces and to efficiently pinpoint classroom functions. Students enter by crossing a landscaped plaza, punctuated by parallel rows of column-like outdoor light fixtures. “We wanted the students to feel like they were important when they entered the building,” Ronan said. In plan, the school is a series of three bars, which Ronan says symbolize the importance of a balanced mind, body, and spirit. One area holds classrooms, another athletic facilities, and the third houses art and performance spaces and the library.

Ronan worked with the lighting designers CharterSills, with whom he has collaborated on several projects, to create the lighting scheme, which adds visual interest, and offers precise controls and energy savings. Inside, standardized fixtures—like exposed flourescent tubes—are used in artful ways. In the library and Commons, an informal gathering space, the fluorescents are staggered to break up the monotony. “We wanted to eliminate the tunnel effect,” said Mark Sills, principal at Charter Sills.

Left to right: Fluorescent lighting is staggered to enliven the commons; sensors adjust lighting in classrooms according to accessible natural light; clerestories add natural light to hallways.

Daylighting is used throughout the building both to improve student experience and to conserve energy. Spaces like hallways, which in many schools are treated like an afterthought, here have generous natural light from clerestory windows, which also allow light to penetrate classrooms from the interior. Art and music rooms have floorto-ceiling glass windows, and all the classrooms have sensors to take advantage of the high levels of natural light and cut energy use. Each classroom has two or three layers of light: perimeter lighting, overhead or task lighting, and lighting along the teaching wall. Each layer of lighting can be adjusted individually. “It allows people to take control of the space. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Sills said. “Our work dovetails very well with John’s,” Sills said. “We try not to get fussy with elaborate fixtures, but we also don’t hide them. There’s no need to try to make something it’s not.”

Ronan used a similarly direct approach with the architecture. Concrete slabs and masonry walls are left unadorned and programmatic areas are clearly defined. The fundamentals of architecture, like those of a sound education, stand the test of time.

Alan G. Brake