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Monday, December 10, 2012

Poetry Foundation

Poetry Foundation in Chicago, Illinois, by John Ronan Architects, 2011

While the Poetry Foundation only dates back to 2003—its establishment aided by the generosity of philanthropist Ruth Lilly—its roots go back much further: to 1941, when the Modern Poetry Association, out of which it evolved, was founded; and to 1912, when Poetry magazine, which the foundation publishes, printed its first issue. The organization's mission is to "discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience." A large part of this is accomplished through the foundation's new building in Chicago's River North neighborhood, designed by John Ronan Architects.

Although the two-story building sits in the midst of residential high-rises, the black corrugated metal wrapper (oxidized zinc, actually) gives the foundation a strong presence on its corner. Three things are happening with this exterior: solid panels provide a border at the ends and along the top; perforated panels give glimpses beyond; and a cutaway at the corner reveals the glass and wood inside and allows access to the building. Yet moving underneath the cantilevered corner reveals that the entrance to the building is not at the corner, where it might typically be located; instead one is drawn along a narrow exterior walkway to the garden beyond.

This garden, which was designed with Reed Hilderbrand and sits behind the long, north-facing expanse of perforated metal, is accessible even when the building is closed (floor plan). Strips of grass are cut into the paving, defining the location of now young trees. Visitors meander among these bits of nature toward the entrance in a glass wall parallel to the zinc facade. From within the garden and its path four things are put on display: first the performance space along the path (photo below right), then the two-story library on the west side, then a colorful mural of Poetry magazine covers behind the entry's glass wall, and finally the city itself through the perforated metal. Of course one's experience of these parts of the building overlaps, but Ronan has managed to instill a bit of control to the entry sequence (even as nearby high-rises seem to peer over the walls into the garden), an in-between zone that readies one for a visit to the foundation. The gauzy glimpse to the street is an especially poetic image, celebrating the city while toning down its sights and sounds.

Public spaces inside the building are limited to a few on the first floor: the performance space, a small gallery, and the library. As mentioned, each one of these spaces faces onto the garden through full-height glass walls, in effect making the outdoor space the most important part of the project. As the trees mature, the character of this space will soften as will the hard edges of the building. This is hinted at by the bamboo that is shooting up through the open stair that connects the public spaces to the offices upstairs. Admittedly, I did visit on a cold autumn day well after the trees had lost their leaves, but the presence of nature in the garden is an important one, both for softening the architecture and offering up juxtapositions—natural vs. artificial, garden in the city, etc.—that are potentially poetic and surely enriching.

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