Two institutional structures stand side-by-side with the names above their entryways blurred out. This image was the kicker in one of architect Juan Gabriel Moreno’s client presentations: an anonymous school next to a no-name jail, stripped of their titles, and depressingly similar. Instead of placing Chicago’s kids inside another walled fortress, he’d say, let’s create a school that’s lively, energetic, and the cornerstone of a community.
"You can close your eyes and see the same old school: long, dark corridors, lines of lockers in the hallways," he says. "But what if you put glass on the exterior, what if you let the community see the children? What would happen if we showcased the energy in some of these low-income neighborhoods?"
That kind of dialogue gets Moreno, head of Chicago-based architecture firm JGMA, wired. It’s not just about finding creative solutions that don’t overshoot the small budgets that come with feel-good gigs. Since starting his eponymous firm in 2010, the Colombian architect has made socially conscious design his calling card, experimenting with materials and engaging with non-profits to translate a vision into something tangible.
Consider his 2011 design for the United Neighborhood Organization Soccer Academy Elementary School, a soaring, Hadid-like snake of glass walls and curved lines. It doesn’t just give students in the predominantly Hispanic Gage Park neighborhood a new home; that home elicits pride and an engaging learning environment.
"My work is about uplifting," he says. "So many people are doubted and underestimated. This is a chance for these communities not to be underestimated. They’re places full of wonderful culture and history that most people don’t dig into, that most people don’t go into."
Moreno can relate to being misunderstood. In conversation, his accent, which comes from spending his formative years in the U.S. studying at California State Polytechnic University Pomona, sounds West Coast surfer. ("I dig" is a common refrain.) But the proud Colombian, born in Medellin, has grown accustomed to questions about his origins and funny responses to his home country. He may want to discuss his hometown’s incredible modern architecture, but it’s hard when the first reference to Colombia is derogatory.
"I want you to see Colombia for what it really is, a wonderful country of human beings who live life to the fullest," he says. "You’re selling yourself short if all you see are coffee and cocaine."
This empathy and background (a rare example of a Latino in leadership position in the building trades) make Moreno an ideal creator for buildings that help outsiders see organizations in a new light.
Take his most famous project, the El Centro campus of Northeastern Illinois University. An angular, striped spaceship adjacent to the Kennedy Expressway, an artery that sees half a million drivers into downtown Chicago on an average day, the eye-catching building presents an optical illusion to commuters, who see yellow fins when they drive in every morning, and blue fins when they drive home. The bold colors are partially an homage to a famous billboard that used to hang across the street, a painting of former Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman that would change color every time the eccentric player dyed his hair.
While Moreno’s bold color scheme catches people’s attention, it also raised the profile of a school that was unknown to most Chicagoans. For 30 years, NEIU’s El Centro program served a minority Latino population of commuters and first-generation immigrants with a scattered, out-of-sight system, with classrooms set up in old storefronts and even high schools.
The gleaming new campus, situated near a highway and multiple bus lines, simplifies the students’ commute and gives them a visible, vibrant campus. The student lounge, located on the third floor, offers a symbolic, inspirational view; just high enough to allow students to peer over the nearby industrial buildings, it provides a clear look into the Loop, the heart of the city’s business district.
"That’s the beauty and power of architecture," says Moreno. "It’s bringing these people together. Faculty love the building, and students can’t believe they’re going here."
Moreno’s approach, a flexibility with materials and a focus on creating spaces that prioritize quality of life, has helped him rapidly expand his firm, which started in the depths of the recession in 2010 and now counts 21 employees.
JGMA is currently working on redeveloping the Lathrop Homes, a sprawling, historic public housing project, seeking to turn landmarked homes near the Chicago River into structures that stitch back together the socioeconomic fabric of the area. Moreno is also building the KLEO Center senior living center for artists in Washington Park, on the southside, sheathed in polycarbonate to bring light into the living spaces, and creating a hospital complex in the city’s Humboldt Park neighborhood that, with adjacent fitness and wellness centers, seeks to dramatically reduce hospital visits.
"I want this firm to be about design," he says. "Working on projects for nonprofits, as opposed to larger clients, actually gives us a much greater chance of getting our ideas accepted. It goes back to having clients that allow for a dialogue, that have a vision. We can find solutions that aren’t the normal way of doing things."
Moreno loves working in a city that respects architects. After all, where else but Chicago can you stroll through a downtown that doubles as an open-air museum for architectural history? But he sees himself expanding architecture’s impact on the city, looking past the massive skyscrapers and downtown high-rises into the backyards of everyday Chicagoans. Moreno wants to work for the underdog.