Goooolll!!! UNO Soccer Academy - Design Bureau
UNO Elementary’s architecture unites high design and soccer fever


Goooolll!!! UNO Soccer Academy

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

By Andrew Schroedter

Rising high above streets filled with modest bungalows and brick warehouses stands a modern steel and glass building, its floor-to-ceiling windows and slick façade sparkling in the sun. The monolith looks slightly out of place in Gage Park, a working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. But the 63,000-square-foot project is as much a part of the largely Latino enclave as the taquerías that line nearby streets. 

It might be surprising to learn the new building is not a financial institution or other corporate construct. Rather, the $27-million development is an elementary school, one that privileges both academics and soccer. Designed by Chicago architect Juan Moreno, the UNO Soccer Academy is meant to inspire children and the surrounding community through sports. The goal of the hybrid athletic and educational center is to attract Latino students who harbor a serious passion for the sport. “We’re using architecture as a way to inspire hope and faith,” Moreno says.

The academy is the latest offering from United Neighborhood Organization, which operates charter schools in predominately Hispanic Chicago neighborhoods. The school runs normally throughout the day, but the kids play soccer during gym class and perform drills and scrimmages after school. And the soccer focus doesn’t stop once the students leave the field. References to the sport are engrained in the academy’s details, from classrooms named after countries that have hosted the World Cup, to the layout of the building, which envelopes a state-of-the-art soccer field. Leaders at UNO envision the Gage Park project as an eventual anchor for a larger campus, including someday an associate high school, training facility, and soccer stadium. But for now, the project is a promising start—both for the neighborhood and for Moreno.

Hailing from Bogota, Colombia, Moreno’s up-and-coming firm, JGMA, beat out 30 others to win the soccer academy project. Although UNO hadn’t formally announced the school would have a sports-related theme, Moreno’s insider knowledge of the culture drove him to include a soccer field in his competition entry, helping him to win the key assignment. “I had an inkling because I’m Latino,” he says, laughing. “I know what soccer means.”

The building, one of JGMA’s first projects, helped the firm get off to a fast start, instantly raising Moreno’s profile in the local design community. Even Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, attended the academy’s opening. The concept school seems to have struck a chord with the Gage Park community, as there were more applicants than openings for the school’s inaugural class—even with more than 600 spots available. But Moreno says he’s most moved by the community’s positive response to his design. “To me, that’s the ultimate success,” he says. “Whether people walk by and say they like it or hate it, I don’t care. That to me is the measurement.” Moreno also proudly notes that attendance was near perfect the first month. “Ninety-nine percent of the students want to be there.”

Moreno’s plans for the future include designs for more schools, international work, and other community projects—assignments that he hopes will impact overlooked neighborhoods like Gage Park and help Latino architects like himself win more commissions. But the ambitious designer wants it on his own terms. He’s adamant that his firm not be chosen to fill a minority quota. “I’m out to show that a Latino can be a leader in design.”

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