The Architect's Newspaper stopped by the JGMA Studio to discuss the firm's unique office culture and philosophy and to look at four key projects: the UNO Soccer Academy; KLEO Life Center; NEIU El Centro; and Cristo Rey - St Martin.
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Our studio visit with Chicago’s JGMA
"Trains rumble past the large, plate-glass windows of the oft-overlooked Holabird & Root McClurg building on the east end of Chicago’s Loop. And though the train is less than 20 feet away from the second-story office of JGMA, one is more likely to hear the discussion of facade materials and patterning over a raucous game of foosball as the young office takes lunch. Despite the office’s very “Chicago” setting, it bears littleresemblance to the more well-known behemoths of Chicago architecture, many in buildings less than a block away.
At only 18 employees (there are 16 desks, so someone is always standing, model building), JGMA is atypical for a Chicago architecture firm in almost every way. Small firms in Chicago are often relegated to smaller projects, and they are rarely given the opportunity to design the kind of challenging architecture that is now JGMA’s signature.
The office’s work ranges from exhibitions to high-rises and everything in between. With a reputation for producing projects that are particularly sensitive to the client as well as the surrounding community, JGMA founder and president, Juan Gabriel Moreno, is quick to point out that he has no intention of specializing in socially conscious design. “I love to say that we are not specialists,” he said. “People try to pin me down, they ask, ‘What do you specialize in?’ I just say, ‘Architecture.’”
As its projects rake in awards, JGMA continues to challenge what architecture can be in Chicago. Each project takes on new distinctive forms and colors. The work is decidedly radical in a city of black glass boxes. Yet even as conservative as the world of Chicago architecture can be, JGMA has found a way to resonate with the traditional establishment as well as the greater public. Its latest major structure, the Northeastern Illinois University El Centro building, has won both a Chicago AIA Honor Award and the Chicago Neighborhood Development Award, a distinction usually earmarked for housing projects.
All of this happens in an office that prides itself on the mentorship of its young employees. With more than a dozen projects on the boards, everyone is expected to pull his or her weight, and those with more experience are expected to keep the projects in check. “What happens here, and my approach just holistically, is that everyone has a voice, period. I don’t care if you just arrived. What I am trying to establish is an environment where people are courageous enough to say what is on their minds.”