Places that Work: Chicago's Poetry Foundation

What is the optimal environment to celebrate poetry?

The Poetry Foundation in Chicago is a place that works. “Let me count the ways,” as Elizabeth Barrett Browning has famously said. The building, designed by John Ronan Architects, opened in June 2011. It’s an optimal environment to celebrate poetry–even on cold, cloudy almost-spring days like the one on which I visited it. Starting with the sidewalk, passersby are intrigued by views into the courtyard and the rest of the building. The very tall zinc wall between the sidewalk and that courtyard, is punctured by thousands of round holes that invite the curious to move in for a closer look, just as if you were to put your eye against a keyhole and see into a room. This “peeking” experience generates pleasant anticipation. Once you enter the courtyard, the wall helps to keep the city hustle-bustle at bay. Upon entering the building, you pass through a well-ordered and luxuriously planted courtyard. Gazing out at this space from inside helps you restock your mental energy and focus your thoughts. The generous windows facing the courtyard make it hard not to look outside.


Inside, the building is well populated with plants and woods with light finishes, which according to recent research by David Fell, helps us de-stress. The windows, plants, and woods ensure that even if you just did battle with Windy City traffic or a trying boss, a few minutes at the Poetry Foundation and you’re ready to hear or read poetry.  As we’ve grown to expect in such places, the building’s interior here is suffused with sunlight–the magical psychological elixir that improves our mood and cognitive performance. A double height library off the lobby is filled with comfortable seating and poetry books that can be read on-site. The library initially dominates your view and communicates, through its prominence and size, the importance of poetry. Readings held in the public room benefit from acoustics specifically designed to support the spoken word.

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The building is LEED accredited with such features as smart “energy consumption, clean air, use of local and recycled materials, and storm water management,” according to information distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Bravo to the Poetry Foundation and John Ronan Architects for creating a wonderful space that celebrates poetry and its eternal subject, humanity.

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a principal at Design with Science . She is also the editor of Research Design Connections and the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009). She can be reached at [email protected] This post is part of a series of Places that Work.

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