The Altgeld Family Resource Center
Mike Schwartz/KOO Architecture The Altgeld Family Resource Center

Altgeld Gardens, on the far reaches of Chicago’s South Side, was built in the 1940s as a housing complex for Black GIs returning from World War II. Consisting primarily of two-story multifamily brick row houses laid out in a sprawling pattern, the design features a series of community amenities at the center, including a former commissary and store designed by the notable 20th-century Chicago architects Keck & Keck. Altgeld Gardens didn’t exactly live up to its name. Surrounded by the highest concentration of hazardous waste sites in the United States, it was dubbed the “toxic donut.”

In "Dreams from My Father," Barack Obama wrote about his 1983 community organizing experience in the neighborhood: “Most children in Altgeld grew up without ever having seen a garden. Children who could see only that things were used up, and that there was a certain pleasure in speeding up the decay.”

The center features an interior outdoor playground and two brightly colored light monitors on the roof.
Mike Schwartz/KOO Architecture The center features an interior outdoor playground and two brightly colored light monitors on the roof.
The center's curving walls vary in height, rising higher over the library section of the building
Mike Schwartz/KOO Architecture The center's curving walls vary in height, rising higher over the library section of the building
The scale of the building's windows are a nod to the surrounding rowhouses in the neighborhood.
Mike Schwartz/KOO Architecture The scale of the building's windows are a nod to the surrounding rowhouses in the neighborhood.

Change can come slowly in this part of the city, but the new Altgeld Family Resource Center, designed by the local firm KOO Architecture next to the Keck structure, is one of the most promising architectural additions in decades. Developed by the Chicago Housing Authority, which owns the complex, the building includes a 10,000-square-foot branch of the Chicago Public Library, a 20,600-square-foot childcare center with pre-K education, and a 6,700-square-foot community center—all under one roof.

A serpentine masonry exterior wall encloses the single-story building, with flat surfaces appearing solely at the two entrances. Visitors access the library and community center from the building’s north side, which faces the main entrance to the Altgeld Gardens; a separate entry on the west face of the building opens to the childcare center. “It is a 360-degree building,” says Dan Rappel, KOO partner and director of sustainable design. “Starting from the seed of the Keck & Keck building, that lent us this ribbon aesthetic that continues all the way around.”

The red brick façades are punctuated by a memorably varied pattern of single- and double-height windows that reference the domestic scale of the surrounding row houses, and that also ensure a largely solid exterior envelope that helps the building achieve net-zero-ready status. “We added [two] internal outdoor courtyards,” Koo says. “Despite the changes that have gone on over time in the community, there still needs to be defensible space for the outdoor children’s playground.”

The children's playground, located in an interior courtyard
Mike Schwartz/KOO Architecture The children's playground, located in an interior courtyard
Another outdoor courtyard located in the building's interior
Mike Schwartz/KOO Architecture Another outdoor courtyard located in the building's interior
The childcare center features LVT plank flooring in a wood finish.
Mike Schwartz/KOO Architecture The childcare center features LVT plank flooring in a wood finish.

The architects employed a similar strategy for the community center and library. Each opens up to outdoor space that is enclosed either by exterior walls clad in bright blue metal panels or by floor-to-ceiling glazing, which also distributes natural light into the building's interior.

On the exterior of the center, the height of the curving walls varies between 17 and 33 feet, rising up over the part of the structure that houses the library, a soaring and inspirational space reminiscent of traditional reading rooms. Books and spaces for quiet reading are supplemented by the public library’s YOUmedia, a 21st-century teen learning space that emphasizes digital media and maker tools. For the library's ceiling, the architects chose a semi-transparent expanded metal mesh. “We studied the size of the mesh and the color of the paint behind it with the intent of creating a veiled ceiling that hints that there's something above it, but the farther you get away from it, the more solid it appears,” Rappel says.

The public library
Mike Schwartz/KOO Architecture The public library
The library's ceiling is made from a semi-transparent expanded metal mesh.
Mike Schwartz/KOO Architecture The library's ceiling is made from a semi-transparent expanded metal mesh.
The library
Mike Schwartz/KOO Architecture The library

The exterior walls also rise to their highest point over the portion of the building containing the childcare center, although here the move serves as a kind of rhetorical device, concealing a flat roof that contains several brightly colored light monitors, dubbed “follies” by KOO principal Jackie Koo.

With so many different uses in one building, the architects wanted to give each space a separate identity. They achieved this by using different flooring: The library features large porcelain tile and black-and-white speckled carpet tile; the childcare center boasts LVT plank floor with a wood-inspired finish. One constant is the natural and soothing palette of three soft-color pastels that runs throughout the interior.

In recent years, the Housing Authority and Public Library in Chicago have developed several new architecturally notable libraries across the city in concert with other needed community services, such as senior housing. At the Altgeld Family Resource Center, KOO Architecture has produced another outstanding design that demonstrates architecture’s ability to provide an uplifting vision while staying rooted to the character of the neighborhood.