In a previous Wednesday Journal column titled, “Novelty architecture spices up road trips” [Sept. 15, 2015], I described a collection of delightful buildings that we experienced on a road trip from Tulsa to the Four Corners region in the southwest. These one-of-a-kind structures hug the roadway, their forms derived by the shifting scale from normal highway signage to a somewhat naive expression of you-can’t-miss-me billboards. These unapologetic buildings trigger emotional responses — as the best art and architecture should. 

In Chicago we have the same contextual influences, produced by high speed and scale-contrast. The competition for attention in our vast urban environment is challenging, as indicated by the new LED billboards, programmed to change in an endless variety of colors, patterns and advertising messages. Yet these innovative technical billboards hardly hold a candle to a new academic/community building.

El Centro raises the bar on roadside architecture. Perched on the Kennedy Expressway at Belmont exit 45, it looks like an alien has landed, marking the location of Northeastern Illinois University’s newest academic building. Juan Moreno from JGMA Architects credits the Bulls basketball player Dennis Rodman for the conceptual idea.

Bulls fans will recall that with each game, the flamboyant Rodman would change the color of his hair and mount an ad on a billboard inciting anticipation about the new look (It was crazy fun!). The university was looking for a way to capitalize on the location and give the students a sense of place and pride in this predominantly Latino neighborhood. The plan for the site was to push the building to the edge of the Kennedy, maximizing its impact and visibility and concealing the parking on the north.

The Rodman effect literally stopped traffic in places, causing a gaper’s block. The Center has achieved a similar effect with its modern expression. The shiny, new, gravity-defying, academic form engages the drab west route from O’Hare to the Loop like Dennis Rodman and his changing billboard. 

The overall shape contrasts the adjacent orthogonal buildings typical of Chicago. The form challenges the conventional 90-degree planning to establish a landmark, not unlike a church with a bell tower that marks a congregation’s house of worship along the route to O’Hare. This exciting form is not arbitrary but contains a compelling story about this ethnic neighborhood and new life beginning to flourish.

The angular form appears to be arbitrary until one takes a complete tour of the interior plan. The perimeter contains the circulation with walls of glass and aluminum, including fins that respond to the solar shading. The interior halls are the most compelling as they cast beautiful shadows. At the ends, the corridors terminate into the major spaces that provide entry, lounge, food service, a lecture hall, 17 classrooms, toilets and a quiet library. 

These curvilinear spaces have wide-open views to the expressway and the Loop. To emphasize the fins’ response to the solar seasons, the surfaces are painted opposing colors gold and blue — the school colors. The corridors also act as sound barriers to mitigate the drone of the expressway. At night, the glass walls are transparent creating a visual buzz from the highway. The interior is a must see as it is an open public building. 

El Centro, is a wonderful project. I love to drive past straining my neck to see how the fins change color and articulate the sensuous surfaces. The Center is more than a novelty. It should be considered seriously, a spiced-up magnetic attraction.

Garret Eakin is an architect, a journalist, and an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.

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Garret Eakin

Garret Eakin is a practicing architect, preservation commissioner and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.