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Better Than A Billboard
Chicago college campus center builds community beside a highway.
JGMAAs design rebrands a Chicago university with bright colors and bold form.
Courtesy JGMA

Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) has an identity problem. Often confused in conversation with Northwestern University in nearby Evanston, Illinois, or with Northeastern in Boston, the public university is spread across four Chicago-area campuses. The school’s Latino-focused northwest side location, El Centro, hopes to rebrand itself with a striking new building at 3390 North Avondale Avenue, about one mile east of El Centro’s current campus.

Designed Chicago’s JGMA, the rhomboidal volume sports bright green fins and unusual angles that vary its appearance from several sides. The 55,000-square-foot building is situated along the Kennedy Expressway, exposing it to almost half a million cars per rush hour commute. “It’s blatantly a billboard, we know that,” said JGMA’s Juan Moreno. “But we wanted it to be more.”


The building’s form is more than mere advertising. A long corridor on the ground level curves along with the expressway, lifting the structure’s mass away from the noise with a black wall that serves as acoustic shielding. Inside that corridor, the windowless sound buffer shelters a student art gallery, providing uninterrupted circulation that is mirrored across all three floors.

Between the wall and the highway, portions of North Drake Avenue and West Henderson Street are shown in renderings as bike and pedestrian paths, closed to traffic. Moreno said they are exploring transit accessibility options for the Avondale campus, which is a few blocks from the Belmont stop on the Blue Line. The campus borders Metra tracks to the north, but the nearest stop is almost a mile away.


NEIU currently lacks a sense of community among commuting students, Moreno said—something he hopes the new building will change. “The entire building is riddled with opportunities for the students to spend time there and just hang out with each other,” he said. “It’s as much a community center as a building for coursework.”

Large windows collect light in gathering spaces throughout the building. Instead of faculty offices, the third floor is occupied by music and art studios, a student lounge and meeting rooms. In all, Moreno said, the building has some 2,000 square feet of un-programmed space, included at the direction of NEIU.

Vertical fins affixed to the building’s skin are engraved on both sides with each letter of the university’s name, benefitting from the eye-grabbing tendency of their bright colors. But they also serve a purpose, shading the upper floors’ ample windows from solar heat gain and glare. Photovoltaic panels on the roof contribute to the project’s goal of LEED Gold certification.

A particularly brutal Chicago winter—the worst since 1979—has frustrated construction, but the project is on track to open in August for the fall academic year.

Chris Bentley