When Chicago architect John Ronan was selected to design a building to house the Poetry Foundation, the publisher of Poetry magazine, one of the largest literary organisations in the world, the goal of the project, as described by the Foundation’s Chair of the Board of Trustees, Ethel Kaplan, was a ‘building that would honor the art form we serve’. That building, a new 25,000 sq ft two storey structure in Downtown Chicago opened last week. With poetics, long dominating the design conversation in both schools of architecture and practice, the obvious question with regards this building, is how it speaks to that art form in its concept, materials and detailing.
We asked John Ronan to speak with us on this very subject. But an exclusive agreement with another publication prevented him from doing so. So short of going to the source, we turned to work itself and to the pages of the Ronan’s recently published monograph, Explorations: The Architecture of John Ronan, for insights into the design of this building as well as his general design philosophy. In the book’s preface, written by architect Toshiko Mori, Mori observes: “In Ronan’s work there is a rare combination of rationality and poetry”. This project is no exception, exemplifying an adherence to a Miesian spareness and rigour coupled with a desire to make a building that is especially experiential, a treat to the senses to be enjoyed by both the public and the people who work there.
Sited on a corner in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood, the building blurs the distinction between building and landscape, between indoor and outdoor space. Visitors enter through an eroded corner that reveals a garden space within. This garden is an urban oasis- a respite from the busy and frenetic city. The building’s public spaces- a poetry reading room, gallery and library- (located on the ground floor) are organised around the garden, with most rooms having direct visual access to the landscape. Offices are housed on the second level. The public spaces unfold ‘like the pages in a book’ little by little, sparking the visitor’s interest to see more as they make their way through the building. Once inside the garden, visitors are met by a double height library space that announces the entrance to the literary environment. On the interior, an exhibition gallery connects the library to the reading room, where poets present their work.
Built of zinc, glass and wood, the building is conceived as a series of layers. In terms of how the building is experienced, it is very much like an Egyptian temple, albeit a transparent one, where one moves along a directed path from the more profane to the most sacred of spaces, which in this building is the poetry reading room, the heart of the project.
John Ronan is a rising star in the profession, someone who is thoughtful and who consistently does good work….an architect we will no doubt hear more from in the future.
Photographs coming soon…