Building for Bards

Building for Bards

Designed by John Ronan, the poetry center features a facade of perforated zinc, along with a publicly accessible central garden.
Courtesy Poetry Foundation

Chicago architect John Ronan has snagged a truly unique assignment in the design of a headquarters and poetry center for the Poetry Foundation in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. What exactly is a “poetry center”? We’ll find out next year. Construction on the 26,000-square-foot building began April 21, and the foundation plans to take occupancy in June 2011.

The Poetry Foundation project has not been without controversy, though none of it relates to the design. The foundation itself has been in operation for about five years. Established as a result of a $100 million gift from pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly to Poetry magazine in 2002, it describes its mission as “discovering and celebrating the best poetry and putting it before the largest possible audience.” It has rapidly evolved into a potent force in the literary world, with an institutional structure and an endowment now reported at $200 million.

Visitors pass through The garden before reaching the lobby.

Some suggest its evolution has been a little too rapid. In December, The Chicago Tribune published a detailed report that outlined ongoing disputes between the foundation and former members of its board of trustees, who claim they resigned or were forced out because of their objections to various foundation operations, particularly those involving expenditures, the new headquarters chief among these. The Illinois Attorney General’s office is currently investigating the situation.

Foundation spokesperson Ann Halsey said, “Although we are disappointed by the complaints, we’ve cooperated fully with the Attorney General’s office and are assured that the complaints are without merit.”

The foundation’s growing pains don’t seem to have impacted its intent to enrich the landscape both culturally and physically, and its choice of Ronan seems apt for accomplishing the latter. Ronan has been a rising star in the profession for the past decade. If projects like his award-winning Comer Youth Center confirmed the promise of that ascendancy, a continuing stream of jobs like the Poetry Foundation building has validated his work.

at night, The center becomes a beacon in the River North neighborhood.

Ronan faced an intriguing challenge with the building: There weren’t a lot of poetry centers to use as reference. While he said it was exciting to devise a new building type, he had to pay close attention to what the client needed, including office space for a staff of 20, a library facility, performance and exhibition spaces, and a public garden.

During the “visioning sessions” he held with the foundation clients, Ronan said certain concepts kept coming up: “literary, lyrical, welcoming.” Ronan chose a cladding of perforated black zinc for the “quiet, strong presence” he hopes it will add to the street frontage. “There’s mystery to it,” he said. Visitors enter the building through an opening in the zinc skin, and pass through a central garden—constituting about 5,000 square feet of the total footage and visible from all the public areas—before finally reaching the lobby.

While Ronan’s approach always reflects his grounding in modernism, the Poetry Foundation design focuses on conveying messages with subtle, coded references—not typically modernist concerns. He suggests that its layering of spaces and integration of interior and exterior sectors make it a building that’s experienced gradually rather than immediately. “We wanted to avoid it being looked at as a one-liner,” he said. “It should be a place you explore and discover in stages, where, at the end, you’ve learned something. Like a poem.”