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The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for Architectural Excellence in Community Design - First Place

JGMA for Northeastern Illinois University - El Centro

Eric Young Smith

Architect Juan Gabriel Moreno makes no apology for the “Wow!” this building elicits from motorists on the Kennedy Expressway between Addison and Belmont.

Clad end-to-end in thermal glass screened by slanted fins – each colored bright blue on one side, Golden Eagle gold on the other – the boomerang-shaped academic/community center morphs shape and color when viewed from I-90/94.

The fins, explains Moreno, have a three-fold purpose: promotional, psychological and sustainable. Promotional because they draw attention to the new satellite campus of a public university too often overlooked. Psychological because El Centro’s dramatic yet welcoming interior spaces tell students, especially Hispanic students, that their education is a big deal and source of pride. Sustainable because everything from that tinted glass, to those sun-shading and noise-baffling fins, to its solar panels, daylight-harvesting angles and use of recycled materials was designed with the environment in mind.

“Too many schools feel more like incarceration than inspiration,” says Moreno. The architect is Bogota-born, Chicago-based and globally renowned for provocative designs. Comfortable ones, too, witness this building’s reception-ready atrium lobby, wide sun-lit corridors, relaxing 3rd floor lounge and outdoor terrace, plus community rooms outfitted, like the classrooms, with the latest AV gear and digital connectivity.

Located 2.5 miles south of NEIU’s main campus at Bryn Mawr Avenue, the site is an easy walk from the CTA’s Blue Line yet a potential jump-starter for a light industrial zone cut off from its Avondale neighborhood by train tracks and I-90/94.

“It’s a second home to me,” said Mike Vargas, a junior majoring in social work. “And it’s a place where different cultures and groups can have a conversation with each other.”