Our studio visit with Chicago’s JGMA

Architecture Midwest Studio Visit
El Centro  (Courtesy JGMA)
El Centro (Courtesy JGMA)

Trains rumble past the large, plate-glass windows of the oft-overlooked Holabird & Root McClurg building on the east end of Chicago’s Loop. And though the train is less than 20 feet away from the second-story office of JGMA, one is more likely to hear the discussion of facade materials and patterning over a raucous game of foosball as the young office takes lunch. Despite the office’s very “Chicago” setting, it bears little resemblance to the more well-known behemoths of Chicago architecture, many in buildings less than a block away.

At only 18 employees (there are 16 desks, so someone is always standing, model building), JGMA is atypical for a Chicago architecture firm in almost every way. Small firms in Chicago are often relegated to smaller projects, and they are rarely given the opportunity to design the kind of challenging architecture that is now JGMA’s signature.

The office’s work ranges from exhibitions to high-rises and everything in between. With a reputation for producing  projects that are particularly sensitive to the client as well as the surrounding community, JGMA founder and president, Juan Gabriel Moreno, is quick to point out that he has no intention of specializing in socially conscious design. “I love to say that we are not specialists,” he said. “People try to pin me down, they ask, ‘What do you specialize in?’ I just say, ‘Architecture.’”



As its projects rake in awards, JGMA continues to challenge what architecture can be in Chicago. Each project takes on new distinctive forms and colors. The work is decidedly radical in a city of black glass boxes. Yet even as conservative as the world of Chicago architecture can be, JGMA has found a way to resonate with the traditional establishment as well as the greater public. Its latest major structure, the Northeastern Illinois University El Centro building, has won both a Chicago AIA Honor Award and the Chicago Neighborhood Development Award, a distinction usually earmarked for housing projects.

All of this happens in an office that prides itself on the mentorship of its young employees. With more than a dozen projects on the boards, everyone is expected to pull his or her weight, and those with more experience are expected to keep the projects in check. “What happens here, and my approach just holistically, is that everyone has a voice, period. I don’t care if you just arrived. What I am trying to establish is an environment where people are courageous enough to say what is on their minds.” 

UNO (Courtesy JGMA)

UNO (Courtesy JGMA)

UNO (Courtesy JGMA)

UNO (Courtesy JGMA)

UNO
The United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) Soccer Academy Elementary School is located in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Gage Park in southwest Chicago. The design of the building brings the students and community together in its sweeping form that wraps around the school’s central soccer field. Classrooms and circulation spaces are filled with natural light, and views of the city are visible through long expanses of glass. UNO is a certified LEED Silver Project.

El Centro (Courtesy JGMA)

El Centro (Courtesy JGMA)

El Centro (Courtesy JGMA)

El Centro (Courtesy JGMA)

El Centro interior (Courtesy JGMA)

El Centro interior (Courtesy JGMA)

El Centro
The blue and yellow finned El Centro sits along one of Chicago’s busiest interstates. Motorists see shifting form and color as they fly (or crawl, depending on traffic) past the low-slung form. El Centro is the urban campus of Northeastern Illinois University and includes 56,000 square feet of classrooms, computer labs, a multimedia resource center, conference rooms, and community
rooms. Even before the project was completed, and subsequently began to collect accolades, it was garnering the city’s attention. Moreno explained a moment when a concerned onlooker  questioned the building’s cantilever: “I can remember while the steel was being framed, on the north side of the building there is a diagonal cut. For shoring purposes, our structural engineer reminded the erectors that they had to put a shoring column in. I started to get calls, ‘Don’t tell me you lost the cantilever, Juan!’ That’s when I knew people were engaging with the building.”

KLEO (Courtesy JGMA)

KLEO (Courtesy JGMA)

KLEO (Courtesy JGMA)

KLEO (Courtesy JGMA)

KLEO
Keep Loving Each Other (KLEO) is a South Side Chicago not-for-profit focused on facilitating the area’s arts community. Located just south of the University of Chicago, in an area that is experiencing a renaissance of art culture, JGMA’s KLEO apartments will provide 60 affordable units for senior artists with studio spaces, community rooms, and retail space. “As soon as you go into something that is quote unquote ‘social,’ people start talking about punched openings. This is for artists and the quality  of light matters. So let’s look at a monolithic polycarbonate building,” Moreno said. The polycarbonate allows for a simply installed system, which provides extreme flexibility in facade coloring and patterning. It also produces exceptional soft working light for artists. JGMA is going through standards and tests to ensure the polycarbonate system (rarely used in the United States) meets the rigorous Chicago fire codes.



Cristo Rey aerial render (Courtesy JGMA)

Cristo Rey aerial render (Courtesy JGMA)

Cristo Rey interior (Courtesy JGMA)

Cristo Rey interior (Courtesy JGMA)

Cristo Rey
As part of the national network of private charter schools aiding underserved communities, Cristo Rey asked JGMA to design a school that matched its unconventional curriculum. When finished, the school—located in Waukegan, Illinois—will be housed in a former Kmart big-box building. By replacing much of the oversize parking lot with a sports field, wrapping the facade, and literally cutting the building into pieces, JGMA is working to distance the school from its less academic past. Large cuts through the building will bring much needed light to the expansive floor area and connect the interior to the wetland area behind the building.

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