The John E. Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes sits jewel-box–like at the edge of the University of Oregon's (UO) Eugene campus. ZGF Architects placed a perfect cube on a triangular plot of land that sits along a busy intersection at the northeast entry to the sprawling 295-acre campus. This location makes it an eye-catching icon for both students and the city's residents.

The design team conceived of the building as both a gateway to the campus and as a celebration of UO's athletic and academic prowess. It is a gathering place for the athletic community—a learning center for students and a lively space for alumni. The 40,000-square-foot glazed structure, which measures 125 feet long on each side, stands in contrast to the rest of the university's red brick building stock.

“The site is a joint between academics, athletics, and the housing,” explains ZGF Architects partner and UO alum Gene Sandoval. “It's a neutral form. It's a pivot point for everything around it. The form is quiet, but it's a beacon in the evening. We thought the simplicity of this building is really enduring.”

Phit LLC, a private group financed in part by Penny and Phil Knight—the latter being the Nike co-founder who ran track and field during his time at the university—served as the client and pushed the team's design. “We went to him [Knight] three times and every time he said it wasn't good enough. He'd say, ‘Let's raise the bar,'” Sandoval recalls. “He felt that the athletes deserved something far better than he's seen around the country.”

The center “is a celebration of past, present, and future,” Sandoval says. And it's also “about getting the best academic care, because very few students are going to be pro athletes. It's about counseling and life skills—all the things you need as an athlete.” As such, the three-story building has a café, a lobby, and a 114-seat auditorium, as well as 35 tutor rooms, a library, 40 study carrels, two flex classrooms, 25 offices, a computer, and three teaching labs.

The grand, 37-foot-tall public atrium allows UO to engage its student athletes as well as its active alumni community. As a result, the space is enlivened with artworks and installations that honor alumni athletes and donors.

ZGF, working with the lighting design studio at Portland, Ore.–based Interface Engineering, devised a richly integrated lighting scheme using LEDs to bring the nearly entirely transparent building to life. The design begins with the Jaqua Center's exterior façade, which is 85 percent glazed and is composed of a double-insulated glass curtainwall with a 5-foot-deep air cavity. Vertical stainless steel screens (composed of triangularly extruded wires) and operable rolling shades are set between the glass panels to control the amount of direct sunlight and heat gain.

The lighting designers installed 15W-per-foot 4000K LED accent fixtures to graze the steel scrim with diffuse white light. They used LEDs instead of spotlights or fluorescents because of their ability to provide uniform and continuous light around the entire building. At night, the building radiates softly and the glow ripples in the reflecting pool that surrounds the structure.

Inside, the careful use of fluorescent lighting and LEDs balance the two facets of the center: its active public atrium on the ground floor and its quieter study spaces and teaching areas on the upper two floors. “At the beginning of the project our aim was to minimize distractions and reduce the presence of lighting in the study spaces, but … the other piece of the puzzle was to pay tribute to student athletes,” recalls Mark Godfrey, senior lighting designer in Interface Engineering's lighting studio.

The atrium is home to a host of artworks and installations that go beyond the typical donor plaque. For instance, it's impossible to miss the three-story-tall image of Albert Einstein. The pixilated montage is composed of 10,000 small stainless steel panels etched with photographs of UO athletes. Because walkways cut through the composition, Godfrey's team needed a way to emphasize the whole picture. They designed a gigantic frame with 3W 3000K recessed linear LEDs mounted at the mural's edges, which created just enough brightness. (Spotlights would have reflected glare spots on the stainless steel and fluorescents run too hot for the tight profile application.

Across the atrium, the Pac-10 award exhibit features vertical fins (wooden on one side and mirrored on the other), plus colored glass panels on the back wall that list the names of distinguished alumni. The installation required two LED systems: linear 4000K LED luminaires (15W per 12 inches) with a 6-degree light pattern to highlight the letters set in relief, and a round, narrow LED uplight that recesses into the base of the wood cabinet to highlight the fins. The fixture is UL-listed for maintenance concerns and possible dampness (a mechanical plenum sits below the ground floor).