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El Centro Campus

Northeastern Illinois University builds a traffic-stopping community hub that embraces Chicago’s busiest expressway

Slicing a severe diagonal path from Chicago’s Loop to O’Hare International Airport, the John F. Kennedy Expressway offers, for your viewing pleasure, bisected neighborhoods, some industrial buildings, a few El stations, and plenty of under- and overpasses. In short, there isn’t much in the way of sightseeing along Chicago’s busiest 18 miles of road. But in the spring of 1996, a mural appeared on a four-story masonry building overlooking the Kennedy. It featured Dennis Rodman at the height of his fame, and every time the notorious Chicago Bulls forward changed the color of his hair in real life—which was, if you recall, often—his monumental afro along the Kennedy got a makeover to match.

“It literally stopped traffic,” says Juan Moreno, founder of the Chicago-based architecture firm JGMA. Gaper’s blocks began forming on a part of the expressway already easily mistaken for the city’s biggest parking lot, and the ad-turned-safety-hazard was removed within weeks.

Rodman’s traffic-stopping, rainbow-hued ’fro sparked JGMA’s vision for El Centro, the newNortheastern Illinois University (NEIU) satellite campus building located prominently off the Kennedy’s exit 45. When JGMA presented its concept, Moreno pointed to a slide of Rodman and asked, “What if a building, instead of a billboard, had that kind of dialogue with nearly half a million commuters, inbound and outbound, every day?”

_B1B5435Juan Moreno, the founder of JGMA, is an architect and advocate for Latino architects in Chicago. NEIU’s El Centro campus serves a primarily Hispanic population on the city’s northwest side. Photo: Caleb Fox

“That expressway becomes a precursor to all of the fabulous architecture that is in downtown Chicago,” Moreno says today. “But name a moment where architecture really steps up and is the forefront along the Kennedy.”

Now you can. El Centro’s boomerang-shaped body leans out energetically over the Kennedy, pointing southward to downtown’s iconic skyline. The glazed exterior is set off by a series of tilted vertical fins in two brilliant colors: a bright, golden yellow for those traveling southeast and brilliant blue for those heading in the opposite direction. These are, of course, NEIU’s colors. “We were looking for a freshness that would present a statement on the expressway,” says David Jonaitis, the project coordinator for NEIU. “We certainly didn’t want to do a bunch of signs with giant spotlights going up to them, so we needed something about the building itself to stand out.”

El Centro renderingEl Centro’s boomerang-shaped body leans out energetically over the Kennedy Expressway in northwest Chicago. City officials originally fought JGMA’s plan to locate the building so close to the highway but eventually relented.
Northeastern Illinois University - El Centro Campus - VIEW 2_COPYThe building’s north plaza faces the permeable parking lot. Faculty and administration can access the north entrance at any hour, where bike storage and shower rooms are waiting.
Student LoungeFrom the third-floor common area, skyline views of downtown Chicago are wide open for students and faculty to enjoy.

Other building highlights include a 75-kilowatt array by ET Solar covering the cantilevered roof, an electric car-charging station paid for by NEIU’s student-run Green Fee Committee, and a permeable parking lot for storm runoff. Many of the building materials were designed locally, including the glazed curtain wall and laminated acoustical glass by Elston Windows, located less than three miles down the Kennedy from the construction site. The site also is a block or two from two El stations, three bus lines, and bike-friendly streets—transit options that 60 percent of El Centro students use.Far from being architectural follies, those attention-grabbing fins, the largest of which are nearly 50 feet tall, are an integral part of the LEED Gold-certified building. Made of Kynar-coated aluminum and installed at varying densities, they are actually sunshades. “When we developed our strategic plan that we’re working under right now,” NEIU president Sharon Hahs says, “one of our action steps read very simply: establish environmental sustainability as a key element of NEIU’s identity.”

ELC_7511The 17 classrooms are on the second and third floors, where traffic noise naturally begins to fade away. El Centro’s single-loaded corridor absorbs the last of the traffic noise, passes plenty of sunshine into the shallow, glass-fronted classrooms, and provides a thermal buffer.
ELC_7523Nearest the expressway, the building’s main corridor serves as a noise buffer. Along certain portions, strategically small windows bring in natural light but limit the sounds of traffic.
ELC_7528The building also features a 75-kW solar array and permeable pavement to reduce stormwater runoff.

The site’s greatest advantage is not difficult to appreciate, with about 400,000 drivers passing the building each day with little else beyond the NEIU colors to compete for their attention. But there are challenges to building next to the most congested highway in the state of Illinois. First, the site was a brownfield when NEIU purchased it, with leaking fuel tanks still in the basements of existing buildings and about 1,000 semi-truckloads of contaminated urban waste to be hauled to the landfill.

Then there was the noise. JGMA and NEIU agreed the building should perch on the edge of the site, engaging with and overlooking the Kennedy Expressway. Originally, Jonaitis says, “the city wanted us to move the building to the back of the site away from the expressway and put parking up front and make it look like a suburban mall. We fought that.”

_B1B5384
David Jonaitis (left), the project coordinator for NEIU, and Juan Moreno (far right), the design architect, lead a tour of the university’s new academic building. Photo: Caleb Fox

Early in the project, sound consultants from Arup made recordings of the site. “They took us into the sound lab and basically played the expressway for us, which was interesting,” Jonaitis says with a laugh. Then, the sound experts demonstrated what various window thicknesses and acoustical treatments would actually sound like for occupants. Because the noise is greatest at the ground floor of the building, a monolithic, porcelain rainscreen wall curves along the site edge next to the freeway, broken only by small vertical apertures, like arrow slits in the ramparts of medieval castles. Inside, the space created by this curvilinear wall becomes a gallery for artwork.“The city’s logic was that this was not an appropriate place for teaching because of the noise issues,” says JGMA project manager Cosmin Vrajitoru. “But this is something you can resolve in design, and some of our first schemes already had this implemented.”

The 17 classrooms are on the second and third floors, where traffic noise naturally begins to fade away, and though classrooms often are placed along the exterior-facing walls with double-loaded corridors in between, El Centro employs a single-loaded corridor ringing the building’s perimeter like a track. That corridor absorbs the last of the traffic noise, passes plenty of sunshine into the shallow, glass-fronted classrooms, and provides a thermal buffer.

After nearly 40 years of El Centro outgrowing leased spaces, NEIU staff is clearly excited about establishing a permanent presence. “Part of the philosophy of our public university is a stewardship of place,” says Hahs. “Northeastern has a long history of being grounded in its communities.” So traffic on the Kennedy had better keep moving because, unlike Dennis Rodman’s hair, this is one brightly colored landmark that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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