September 29, 2022
This year, two icons of Chicago’s Latino community, which makes up a third of the city’s population, became official city landmarks. The 60-foot tall steel Puerto Rican flags marking the stretch of Division Street known as Paseo Boricua, erected in 1995, are a monumental testament to the long Puerto Rican presence in Humboldt Park. The arch welcoming people to the second-busiest commercial strip in the city, on 26th Street in Little Village, similarly concretizes the influence of the large Mexican community in Chicago. Built in 1990 and designed by Adrian Lozano, it is the first official city landmark designed by a Mexican architect.
Such official recognition of the impact of Latinos on Chicago’s built environment is only a small acknowledgement. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, here are some architects of Latin American descent whose work can be found in Chicago.
The Little Village arch isn’t the Mexican-born Lozano’s only significant contribution to Chicago. He painted Chicago’s first Mexican mural at Hull House—the beginning of a colorful tradition here that is especially visible today in Pilsen. That neighborhood is also the home of the National Museum of Mexican Art, which Lozano adapted from an unused boathouse, adding an impressive entrance and a motif from the Zapotec site of Mitla to the façade, among other changes. He also served as the architect overseeing the construction of Pilsen’s Benito Juarez Community Academy.
Pedro Ramírez Vázquez
Lozano was executing the vision of Pedro Ramírez Vázquez at Benito Juarez Community Academy. One of Mexico’s leading architects and the developer of a design for a prefabricated rural school used across Mexico, Ramírez Vázquez was appointed to design Pilsen’s school by Mayor Richard J. Daley after the mayor supposedly called Mexico’s president to ask for the country’s best architect. (The school itself was the product of a remarkable community campaign to get a bilingual public school for Pilsen.) Ramírez Vázquez’s plan incorporated space for murals, and it has been argued that the school’s sloping walls reference Mayan and Aztec architecture.
The Argentinian-born Pelli, who died in 2019, is perhaps the highest-profile—and highest-building—Latin American architect to work in Chicago. He himself designed two buildings here: the skyscraper at 181 W. Madison Street, from 1990, which lightly references classic Art Deco towers in its recessed crown; and the postmodern Gerald Ratner Athletics Center at the University of Chicago, from 2003. Pelli’s firm, now called Pelli Clarke & Partners, has designed several other buildings in the area: DePaul University’s Theatre School, Wintrust Arena, Northwestern Medicine’s Lake Forest Hospital, and Wolf Point East and Salesforce Tower, which both stand at the branching of the Chicago River downtown.
Pelli is also notable in Chicago for a building that was never built, as well as one that wasn’t built here. His proposed Skyneedle would have stood across the street from 181 W. Madison and usurped the then-Sears Tower’s position as tallest building in the world. While plans for the Skyneedle fell through, Pelli’s Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur later surpassed the Willis Tower instead.
Pelli may have designed a taller building, but the Uruguayan-born Viñoly has Pelli beat in terms of height in Chicago. His NEMA in the South Loop, which cleverly nods to the Willis Tower while having its own unique look, is the tallest residential apartment building in Chicago and the eighth tallest building overall in the city. Its not his only reference to iconic Chicago architecture: his Charles M. Harper Center at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business plays with the horizontal planes of the neighboring Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright. He is also responsible for the University of Chicago Medicine's Center for Care and Discovery, which looks a bit like a sharp-anged, rectangular cruise ship.
Juan Gabriel Moreno
Like Pelli, Colombian-born Juan Gabriel Moreno has a namesake firm whose work can be found across the city. JGMA’s buildings are often characterized by vibrant colors and dynamic forms, as in the Brighton Park outpost of Esperanza Health Centers; UNO Soccer Academy in Gage Park; Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy in Little Village; and Northeastern Illinois University’s El Centro campus, which flashes by in blue and yellow as you pass it on the Kennedy Expressway. Architecture critic Blair Kamin told Chicago Tonight that El Centro is "very clearly an expression of its Latino identity," in its use of color similar to that of architecture found especially in Mexico.
When Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido joined the late Chicago architect Helmut Jahn’s firm in 2000, he was “the only one that spoke Spanish,” he later told the Chicago Tribune. He was eventually named president of the firm in 2012; "I'm probably the only Mexican in a position of this rank” in architecture,” he told the Tribune in 2017. He founded his own firm, FGP Atelier, in 2018. While it is based in Chicago, its portfolio is international. Gonzalez-Pulido did work on several Jahn projects in and around Chicago, however, according to his Wikipedia page: the Streeterville residential tower 600 N. Fairbanks Court; the domed Mansueto Library and futuristic Chiller Plant at the University of Chicago; and the sharp-angled Shure Headquarters.
Patricia Saldaña Natke
Chicago native Patricia Saldaña Natke is a founding partner of the Chicago-based firm UrbanWorks, which has worked on numerous planning projects, including a McCormick Place Master Plan and Chicago’s 2016 Olympic Games bid. But the firm has also built some significant educational spaces: the La Casa dormitory in Pilsen, which allows students at any college to live there; and Galewood Elementary School on the West Side, which has a dramatic sloping side that recalls a skateboarding quarter pipe.
Chavez is Mexican-born but fell in love with Chicago after moving here and planning to stay for only a few years, as she told the Chicago Architecture Center. She was an early employee at JGMA, where she worked on El Centro, Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy, and other educational projects. She then joined the large firm Gensler, where she was part of the team behind the airily open Columbia College Student Center in the Loop. She once again works at JGMA. Despite her experience and work, however, obstacles such as her gender and country of origin (educational credits don’t easily transfer from Mexico to the U.S.) have prevented some advancement, as she explained to CAC. But she still says she loves her profession: “I wouldn’t want to be anything else,” she told CAC.
Emmanuel Garcia and Fabiola Yep of Wheeler Kearns Architects
Garcia and Yep are both still young, but have already worked on some significant projects at the Chicago-based firm Wheeler Kearns Architects. Garcia led the transformation of a bank into the headquarters of the North Lawndale Employment Network and the design of the jaggedly undulating Purple Llama Coffee & Record Shop in West Town. He was also on the team for the Chapel of St. Joseph at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Des Plaines, built out of a former gymnasium, which has won several awards.
Yep has also worked on adaptive reuses of buildings. She was a part of the renovations of several buildings at the Elgin Math + Science Academy, including the conversion of a log cabin from 1937 into an “Art Barn.” She also worked on the renovation of an unused Catholic church in South Chicago into additional classrooms and space for Great Lakes Academy, connecting the new space to an existing building via a Miesian glass box. Both Garcia and Yep are members of the Chicago-founded Arquitectos, which supports Latino and Latina architects.
The Mexican architect Frida Escobedo has only designed one small space in Chicago, but it is a striking combination of historic and futuristic, industrial and commercial: a West Loop storefront for the skincare brand Aesop. (She has also designed stores for Aesop in other American cities.) The stark space feels both like a laboratory and a loft with its exposed brick and reflective green surfaces, and is located inside a historic building in Fulton Market.
This story was updated on October 3, 2022 to include Rafael Viñoly.