Curbed dropped by the Poetry Foundation's open house in River North this weekend to check out the new building and hear a talk by architect John Ronan. The building has already gotten a good deal of praise, and it deserves it. It's a thoughtful, thought-provoking structure that truly suits its function. Nothing about Ronan's building is quite as simple or straightforward as it seems at first glance. Approached from the west on Erie Street, or from the south on Dearborn, pedestrians might mistake it for a garage because of the dark screen, but an opening at the intersection reveals an inviting courtyard filled with young trees and moss that eventually leads to the building's entrance. The same is true of the building's main staircase, which takes a couple of turns before bringing you to your destination, and offers a resting place at the halfway point, where a seating area has been set up. Like a good poem, the building's meaning unfolds in stages, we were told.
The interior is similarly inviting, with great walls of glass that look out on the courtyard and the skyline above and soaring bookcases filled with poetry books. In his talk, Ronan spoke a lot about the materials in the building — concrete, glass, steel, and wood — and the painstaking process of selecting them. The zinc screen, for example, was chosen for its authority and seriousness, as well as its mysterious and 'enigmatic' qualities. And it does an excellent job of creating a 'soft' barrier between public and private realms.
Ronan, it seems, thought of everything while planning this building. He put a heating system in the concrete of the courtyard to melt snow and to keep shovels from scratching up that pretty concrete. He made sure that the acoustics of the event space would enable poets to read their poetry without a microphone. But there is one area that might have gone overlooked. At the corner of Dearborn and Superior, visitors have to step up a couple of shallow steps to enter the Poetry Foundation courtyard. Ronan spoke about the symbolism of stepping up into the space, and entering the realm of poetry. Most people entering the courtyard see the steps, but people exiting do not. Because the concrete used to pave the courtyard is nearly the same color as the sidewalk, it's pretty easy to miss. After helping an elderly man who had just taken a spill back to his feet, a Poetry Foundation worker had to spot up at the entryway to warn visitors (everyone, young and old, has tripped on those steps today, he told us). A stripe of paint might be in order.
We're also a little worried about the fate of that freshly-planted moss (not that it's for us to worry about). When we attended the talk on Saturday, a workman was out in the courtyard tending to it with a spray bottle. But sure enough, when we returned on Sunday, a few big divots had been kicked away by careless visitors. The Foundation is probably getting more visitors this week than it will in a very long time, but will that moss be able to survive the beating it'll take from poets' boots? We hope so, because it sure looks sharp.
Want a real review of the building? Check out what Blair Kamin had to say about it last Thursday.