Architecture: How would you turn a poem into a building?


The Poetry Foundation is one of my favorite buildings in the world and one of the 23 Buildings You Shouldn’t Miss in Chicago If You Are An Architect. Yet so small it is one of the most effective buildings in terms of concept. In my opinion, visiting this space is like reading a poem: you always get a new perspective and have different interpretations.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation Views from West Superior St.

WHAT IS IT: The new home for the Poetry Foundation was designed by John Ronan Architects and built in 2011, being 26,000 sqf its project area . It is located in 61 West Superior Street, Chicago (Illinois) and its site had an L-shaped property boundary. It is also environmentally sustainable and built to comply with the US Green Building Council’s Silver Level LEED Rating System.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poestry_Foundation_Floor_PlanVirginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_Floor_Plan2 Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_Section1 Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_Section2Floor plans, Sections.
Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_Exterior Views from West Superior St. and N. Dearborn St.

CONCEPT: Like a poem that invites multiple readings, the space encourages repeat visits, revealing itself slowly over time. That is why the building is organized in a series of layers.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_black-zinc-systemBlack zinc system Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_garden-systemGarden system
Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_glass-wall-systemGlass wall system Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_wood-systemWood system

PROGRAM:  Public functions—the performance space, gallery and library—are located on the building’s ground floor, while offices space are located on the second level, organized into three areas (Foundation Administration, Poetry magazine/website, and Programs).

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_AccessViews from the garden.
Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_Access_InteriorViews from the main access to the building.

The building is configured to allow for views from all spaces into the garden.The garden space, which formally interlocks with the enclosed building, is conceived as another “room” of the building, and part of the building’s slowly-unfolding spatial sequence.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_PanoramaInterior Panorama.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_Conference_RoomConference Room.

MATERIALS + DETAILS: Tectonically, the building is conceived of as a series of layers that visitors move through and between. Layers, of zinc, glass, and wood, peel apart to define the various spaces of the building.



Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_Structure_EndDetails of the oxidized zinc façade.

The building’s outer layer of oxidized zinc becomes perforated where it borders the garden, allowing visual access to the garden from the street to encourage public investigation.


Inside the garden, the zinc screen wall serves to internalize the garden experience and provide a sense of removal, to prepare visitors for the experience inside. Baltic birch plywood embraces the interior by forming the shelves as well as paneling.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_LibraryViews from the library.

The ground materials are the same for interior and exterior pavements.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_FloorViews of the access steps.

NEGATIVE ASPECTS: The only negative aspect of this building is how it deals with its surroundings. The side that is open to the public is permeable and the layers have a lot of meaning. But, what about its adjacencies? As we turn Dearborn Street we find this completely solid corner, and as we move forward we find the neighbour building abruptly.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_CornerCorner from N. Dearborn Street.

The neighbour building has its north façade all covered by windows that face the back part of The Poetry Foundation. This solution is not very elegant and is indeed one of its weakest points.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_Adjacent_BuildingAdjacent building from N. Dearborn Street.

PROTECTION SYSTEM: How is The Poetry Foundation protected at night? This solution is neither very intelligent. To prevent people from getting in part of the pavement is folded up as shown in the following image.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Poetry_Foundation_Night_ProtectionViews at night.

All pictures:  ©Virginia Duran

If you want to learn more about Chicago’s Architecture have a look to my Free Architecture Guide of Chicago or click on the map below.


16 thoughts on “Architecture: How would you turn a poem into a building?

  1. A building for poetry. My heart jumps for joy. I enjoyed reading your posts. In Christchurch, our city is in the process of being rebuilt after devastating earthquakes. Personally, I am hoping for beautiful, beautiful new buildings. However, some of the buildings that have already appeared make my heart sink.


    • Hello Letizia, sorry for the late answer, I just saw this … :S
      Have you ever been in Chicago? If you visit you must visit this building. The “rereading” concept is very clear and makes it a unique experience. Besides being a wonderful place for poetry lovers 🙂


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