The Poetry Foundation, John Ronan, Chicago

The success of a library lies in its ability to incite a curiosity powerful enough to immerse one in the peaceful, immaterial world of books.  John Ronan’s Poetry Foundation, in the heart of urban Chicago, subtly intrigues and draws its visitors in.  A perforated zinc encasement seals the structure away from the noisy city streets and a narrow passage lined with trees lures guests into the large courtyard center.  At the end of the courtyard, 36-foot-tall glass walls reveal the two-story library lined floor to ceiling with brightly colored books.

“The Poetry Foundation is comprised of a building in dialogue with a garden created through erosion of an implied volume as described by the L-shaped property boundary,” said architect John Ronan. The carefully sandblasted concrete foundation acts to unify the outdoor and interior spaces, paving the garden courtyard as well as the ground floor.  Each of the main spaces has a view toward the courtyard, and another cluster of trees rises within the stairwell.  Ronan has successfully engulfed his library within a luscious, green paradise, allowing visitors to feel very calm and removed from their dense city home.  A small step up, from the sidewalk, into the space forces visitors to be conscious of their journey from the moment they enter the courtyard. 

            It is the harmony of its contradictions that make this a compelling structure.  The project celebrates its urban, central location, bordered by noisy Chicago streets, yet it succeeds to provide a quiet center for work, inspiration, and performances.  This is accomplished by simple, clever solutions in acoustics, involving double layered glass, fabric lined ceilings, and a tree-filled courtyard, which will continue to improve as the trees grow.  The project also focuses on transparency, and openness to the public, yet seeks removal from the city.  The building is transparent, as it is primarily composed of glass, however an exterior zinc wall, perforated alongside the courtyard, acts as a case, like the cover of a book.  The zinc wall protects and removes the building from the city, but teases its public just enough to invoke curiosity. 

            The materials of this project were carefully chosen , to cohesively communicate their message.  Humble in nature, each material is isolated as single, bold, continuous component of the building.  These diagrams reflect how each component stands independently, but together they unravel, slowly revealing one room after another. 

Blair Kamin of Chicago Tribuneconcludes, “This is a mature work of architecture, one that, like fine poetry, is about subtle, slowly unfolding pleasures, not facile one-liners.” The poetry foundation succeeds in its goals to help poets pursue their art and raising poetry’s profile in the public.  The structure’s light, transparent nature directly contrasts with the rest of the districts’ dense, concrete towers, immediately casting it in the limelight.  The interlocked dialogue of the garden and the building continue to direct curiosity through the entire sequence of spaces, culminating in the performance room.  The architecture reads like a riveting poem that leaves visitors provoked and inspired.


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