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Lavezzorio Community Center by Studio Gang Architects, Chicago, USA

Studio Gang Architects striated raw concrete centre helps develop a sense of community. Photography by Steve Hall

There is an almost magical quality to the SOS Children’s Village in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighbourhood. Laughing children play unsupervised on pink tricycles. Occasionally a parent will open a window or door to check in or deliver some mild admonishment. The overall feeling is less panoptical, more Jane Jacobs dreamscape. The reality is, however, a bit more grim. SOS Children’s Village, a locally-designed residential complex finished in 2005 by Campbell Tiu Campbell, has a remit to develop stable foster families and reconnect foster children to their siblings and, on occasion, parents. A reductive description might identify it as a neighbourhood of broken homes, but on my visit it seemed to operate better than any nuclear American paradise of McMansion cul-de-sacs. The district itself is one of the city’s less affluent, populated by predominantly black families.

Amid this landscape and acting as a figurehead for SOS’ activities stands the Lavezzorio Community Center, designed by Studio Gang and opened earlier this year.

Founded by principal Jeanne Gang in 1997, the firm is one of Chicago’s best-known young practices, currently engaged in a range of work from interiors to the high-profile 82-storey Aqua Tower in the city’s Lakeshore East development area, which will complete later this year. At the risk of anthropologising Lavezzorio and the community it serves, the centre’s greatest success comes from mediating between local gloominess and a more hopeful sense of community. So the architects have created a building that is open and light, yet also solid and protective.

At 1,500m², the budget (excluding the cost of land, donated by the city), was only US$ 3.5 million, prompting the architect to solicit donations from various suppliers and manufacturers. These included carpet, wood flooring and ceiling panels. This approach determined the building’s most distinctive external feature, the geological stratification of its concrete walls in a series of multi-hued, grey-toned and irregular horizontal bands. These bands provide a map of donated materials, lending the project a temporal dimension. Colours represent different concrete densities and are mimicked by a local muralist on the interior of the atrium. The interplay between the cave-like concrete and the glass walls represents the most obvious duality between strength and lightness, forming a symbolic and experiential synthesis that expresses the essence of the project.

Inside, the entrance hall is dominated by a set of connecting stairs. On one side, steep steps are covered in green, loose-knit shag carpeting that resembles AstroTurf. Pillows are scattered across this carpet, and it faces a large-screen television. Studio Gang conceive of this as an informal gathering place, like stadium seating. On my visit, however, the head of the centre asked if they could install intermediate steps, as the large risers were proving too challenging for smaller children.

The ceiling features translucent polycarbonate panels (also donated) which brighten up the interior and create interesting light perforations and shadows. Paired with the heavier concrete stairs, the effect mimics that of the main exterior volume. West of the atrium, the architects created a more generic space for day care on the lower floor, with staff offices and meeting rooms above. On the upper floor in particular, these spaces have a clinical, neutral quality appropriate for often emotionally charged family encounters.

With its floor-to-ceiling glazing, exposed concrete and fluorescent lighting, the day care space has a post-industrial feel: simple, robust and open.

The community room addresses the two busiest streets, opening up into the neighbourhood with two fully glazed walls. V-shaped columns support a concrete beam that cantilevers across the corner, keeping the structure open and light.

The success of the centre lies in its ability to mediate between extremes. Both gestural and generic, it creates a local landmark while also accommodating a range of uses. It is both heavy and light, playing solidity against transparency. It is finished but unpolished, with its use of raw and scavenged materials. And given that programming and circulation were so tightly defined, the architects have achieved something deeply admirable, rallying the community around a new local icon.

Architect Studio Gang Architects, Chicago, USA
Structural engineer Thornton Tomasetti
Services engineer CCJM Engineers
Landscape architect Site Design Group

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