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Making a Racquet

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Nagle Hartray Architecture • Donald J. McKay, Architect & Principal •  Photos by Marian Kraus
MetroSquash Academic & Squash Center

by Camille LeFevre

The South Side of Chicago isn’t particularly familiar with the game of squash. The racquet sport, invented in the 1830s at the Harrow School for boys in northwest London, is often associated with the East Coast elite, along with high-powered businessmen who play to burn off steam during their lunch hours. In April, however, the Woodlawn area of Chicago became the South Side’s squash hub—perhaps even a hub for the whole city—when MetroSquash Academic & Squash Center opened its new 21,000-square-foot facility.

The nonprofit organization has, for 10 years, been teaching South Side kids from fifth grade through high school to play squash, improve their academic skills and adopt a healthier lifestyle. During that decade, MetroSquash used the University of Chicago’s Henry Crown Field House for squash lessons and tutored its students in an upper-floor office in University Church in Hyde Park. The new center brings the entire program home, under one attractive roof.

Designed by Donald J. McKay, an architect and principal with Nagle Hartray Architecture in Chicago, the new MetroSquash includes four classrooms, locker rooms and a parent lounge. Moreover, the facility has eight squash courts—seven singles courts and one doubles court—which means MetroSquash is one the largest squash facilities in the Midwest. It’s also the fourth stand-alone purpose-built urban squash youth enrichment facility in the United States, and the only urban facility in the world with a doubles court.

Designing the unique facility was a balancing act, McKay says. Not only did the center need to house academics (quiet) and fitness (noisy), but also present an open, welcoming face to the community while giving the students, mentors and administrators inside a sense of security. The facility also had to be designed on a budget, yet be inviting and intriguing enough to entice donors to contribute during the fundraising campaign.

“MetroSquash isn’t the kind of facility that architects have designed a 100 times before,” says McKay. “At the interview, we emphasized how we’d listen to the client, creatively find the right and appropriate solutions to the design challenges, and create good architecture that MetroSquash would be happy to have its name associated with.”

McKay and his team started with the site, a southwest street corner with two public faces; the other sides face an alley and an adjacent building. “MetroSquash wanted its program visible and embraced by the local community,” McKay says. The design team used a precast concrete panel construction system, which is rugged and cost-effective, then broke up the precast with clerestory windows of fritted glass and glass-fronted squash courts along the two busy streets.

In doing so, McKay says, “We were able to balance security concerns, and ensure the design was open and friendly to the community. Putting glass in the squash courts also exposes the community to the sport and the kids having fun playing the game.” The undulating and pitched rooflines also add character to the building, and “directly relate to the program inside,” McKay says, which is organized around an axial space that also delineates the centerline of the roof form.

Divided into two zones around that central, axial space—the sleek, modern squash courts are on one side, well-lit academic classrooms on the other—the interior allows students to circulate easily between the courts and classrooms via pathways planned in a donut shape. During the after-school program, McKay explains, half of the students receive academic tutoring, while the other half receive squash instruction.

“Halfway through the program, they switch,” he explains. “So the donut configuration allows the switch to occur without kids crossing paths or running into each other.” In the classrooms, the design team—which specializes in educational facilities—used indirect lighting that bounces off the ceiling to control glare associated with computer use. A company specializing in squash courts dropped their design program into the precast concrete boxes McKay and his team designed for the facility.

“We were charged with balancing a number of competing interests—affordability, functionality and attractiveness for the donors and administrators, along with security and openness, so when the kids walk in the door they’re in a safe and welcoming place,” McKay says. “The balancing act was tricky. But we were committed to the idea that if you do good design and create a good program embraced by the community, the neighborhood and client will respect that. And they do.”

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