The Story of Chicago’s Soccer Academy | How one charter school is using the world’s most popular sport to change the face of Chicago’s Southwest Side
Juan Rangel admits it: he’s a hands-on client. This was nowhere more apparent than in 2010, when he walked into a meeting with the architects who’d won the bid to design and build the United Neighborhood Organization’s new charter school and said, “Let’s flip the thing around.”
As originally conceived, the building’s glass-and-steel face pointed northeast—toward the iconic skyscrapers of downtown Chicago. But Rangel, who as chief executive of UNO spends all his time encouraging growth and opportunity in the city’s Hispanic neighborhoods, wanted UNO Soccer Academy to face northwest, toward the weedy, abandoned lots in which he sees so much potential.
Rangel wanted the 63,000-square-foot LEED Gold candidate to communicate to residents of the Gage Park community that they’re worth more than a hand-me-down, and the design—fresh, energetic, fittingly sporty—does just that. It also pointedly avoids Hispanic cultural cues like Aztec motifs and murals of Latino heroes. “I don’t want to caricature the community in that way,” he says. “I’m not interested in that. The building should reflect the aspirations of the community, not its heritage. I want to capture the aspirations of the people that come here seeking an opportunity to get ahead.”
The soccer-themed charter school sprang from an after-school program that had begun incorporating soccer into a wider curriculum in order to tap into the soccer culture already present in the community. Kids came—and kept coming. That enthusiasm made Rangel wonder how he might accomplish three purposes: First, use soccer as a hook to get kids more interested in academics. Second, enable talented students to someday catch the eye of a university recruiter. Finally, empower those accepted to graduate from said college with a respectable GPA. His answer: the UNO Soccer Academy. The 11th charter school in UNO’s network, the Gage Park school sets a higher requirement for physical education classes than other Chicago schools, incorporates soccer drills into fitness education, and emphasizes nutrition. Here, too, the kids show up. Since the semester began in September 2011, the school, which houses about 575 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, has the highest attendance rate in UNO’s network: 98 percent.
One wall in the narrow office of Juan Gabriel Moreno Architects (JGMA), the studio Juan Moreno founded in August 2010, is covered with blackboard paint. Chalked from floor to ceiling are competition deadlines, phone numbers, names of Chicago neighborhoods, inside jokes, and a hand-drawn calendar. Beneath “the everything wall,” as Moreno calls it, sit the 12 architects who, along with Moreno, make up JGMA.
The wall opposite the blackboard is neatly papered with prototypes of completed, forthcoming, and hopeful projects, from UNO Soccer Academy to a glass house in Belize, a waterfront India hotel, and a runway for Chicago’s Latino Fashion Week. The styles are often contemporary, sharp-angled, and big-windowed. The concepts range from thrifty rehab buildings to master neighborhood plans, but all the buildings have two elements in common that might someday become informal JGMA signatures. First is the use of graphic text—“I’m not into a lot of ornamentation in architecture,” Moreno says, “but I love the heavy graphic.” The UNO classrooms, for example, are each named for a country or city that has hosted the World Cup. The classroom name is designed to slide from classroom door to floor—“JAPA,” one classroom door reads in sleek block capitals; the floor beneath it finishes, “N.” The other common theme in Moreno’s work is an angle he calls at times a “crescendo,” at others “the gesture,” which refers to a portion of the building that juts skyward at its conclusion. If UNO Soccer Academy were a ship, this would be the prow pointing out into the unknown.
Colombian-born Moreno has called Chicago home for 12 years. He became familiar with Latino community organizations like UNO and the smaller Instituto—for which he designed a renovated high school, also completed last September—through the professional organization Arquitectos. Now president of Arquitectos and heading his new firm, Moreno says his professional energy flows directly from activism. Unafraid of being pigeon-holed as an architect who designs Hispanic buildings—JGMA recently won a competition to design a Latino campus for Northeastern Illinois University—he wants the students he encounters through the charter schools and Arquitectos to know success is possible in this country for them too. “That a Latino can grow to become a leader in this community is, I think, a message these kids need to hear,” he says, pointing out that his family and economic background mirrors that of most of the youth he meets in the schools.
In several obvious ways, Moreno threw out traditional school design for UNO Soccer Academy. He decided against a double-loaded corridor, the iconic, locker-lined tunnel between the building’s exterior-facing classrooms. Instead, the school’s hallways ring the outer perimeter while the classrooms are clustered in the center. Due to the expansive use of glass on the exterior, students can easily be observed walking to and from class. This transparency defied another traditional theme of school design, which with sturdy brick faces, small windows, and hidden hallways, communicate impenetrability. “What happens is you end up with these fortresses,” Moreno says. “But for me, it’s kids that activate the building. I want to see kids. I think that’s what gives the building life more than architecture ever could.”
The UNO Soccer Academy was built in a ten months. Ghafari Associates, the design-build firm that acted as design and construction manager, had between the groundbreaking in late November 2010 and the first day of class in September 2011 to complete the project. The budget imposed its own constraints—$23.6 million to construct a world-class building to dazzle the client, act as a beacon of inspiration for the neighborhoods of Chicago, and challenge nationwide conventions about what an educational facility can look like.
Limitations breed efficiency, and Ghafari Associates—a 30-year-old firm based in Michigan with offices in Chicago, Indianapolis, India, and the Middle East—entrusted its subcontractors with owning their portion of the work and focusing its efforts on coordinating all the moving parts. “We had the confidence we’d get it done,” says August Mitchell, vice president of construction and project manager.
Before construction could begin, the land itself had to be dealt with. Gage Park is located just a few miles southwest of the former Union Stockyards, and the soil on this parcel at West 51st Street and South Homan Avenue had suffered. It previously had been used as a truck staging area and metal factory and required extensive environmental remediation before construction could begin. The work of removing contaminated soil from the brownfield site took roughly six weeks, but it bettered the project’s chances for LEED Gold certification. “Sustainable Sites is one of the major areas for which we got the most credits in the LEED certification,” says project architect Ayse Bautz, who assembled all the LEED documentation. Other points obtained in Sustainable Sites include the reuse of concrete onsite, easy access to public transportation via the nearby Chicago Transit Authority train station, bicycle storage, and a 25-percent reduction in site runoff.
A green roof, designed by Glenview, Illinois-based Green Roof Solutions, utilizes natural, recycled, or biodegradable materials on the mat and fiber levels and native vegetation on top. In addition to its typical storm-water and heat-island benefits, the roof is an educational tool, providing an up-close example of both native plants and sustainable building practices. The ground landscape, designed by Terry Guen Design Associates, similarly incorporates vegetation native or adaptive to the surrounding neighborhood and doesn’t require a permanent irrigation system.
Each classroom has one wall entirely of Oldcastle 74% glass, which faces the corridor and, beyond that, the exterior. Depending on which of the three floors one observes from, this transparent wall provides a view of the immediate landscape, surrounding neighborhood, or downtown Chicago. As the students advance from a first-floor kindergarten class to eighth grade on the third floor, their view of the world around them similarly grows and broadens. In addition to earning a LEED credit for views, these windows let in substantial daylight. Both the lighting and HVAC systems provide flexibility with photocells, occupancy sensors, and manual controls.
The exterior wall system, with its stainless steel shingles that glow white on a cloudy day or reflect fiery sunsets in the evening, is a curtain wall with a rainscreen. The contractor, Reflection Windows, used 85% post-consumer steel manufactured by TISCO and ArcelorMittal. The stainless steel is accented by green-tinted insulating glass, also by Oldcastle, to create a dynamic, angled pattern.
There is a tiny, box-shaped Mexican food restaurant across 51st Street in Gage Park that faces the school. Just a year ago the proprietors and customers had nothing to look at through its windows but an abandoned industrial lot, a gloomy reminder of a flat-lining economy and stagnant neighborhood. But views from the diner’s windows now rival that of many in Chicago, and not only because of the stunning design of UNO Soccer Academy. The school and the kids it serves—the same kids who now stop in after class to eat a taco and whose excited chatter fills the formerly quiet restaurant—are day-to-day reminders of hope, of what kind of future education represents and, most of all, that things are starting to look up in Gage Park.