Jeanne Gang: Placemaker

“Sometimes the projects are… you make them up, there isn’t really a client,” architect Jeanne Gang mused from the Piper Auditorium podium. Gang, a Harvard Graduate School of Design MArch graduate (1993) had returned to deliver a talk titled “Expeditions in the Contemporary City” in February. She was talking about projects like the research–conducted with the National Resources Defense Council and GSD students–and problem solving strategies she published in Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways.

As the founder and principal of Studio Gang Architects, Gang has worked to cultivate a collaborative rather than a hierarchical culture in her studio. “As I started this practice, I always thought of it as a collective rather than a top-down idea of a studio,” she said. Through her practice, Gang utilizes the advantages of creating a work environment where people from different backgrounds are encouraged to help think about the work differently.

Located in Wicker Park, Chicago, SGA occupies a space at the intersection of art, business, entertainment, and folk. According to a September, 2012, Forbes article, Wicker Park is one of the hippest hipster neighborhoods in the country. “It’s a very vibrant part of the city that we use as a microcosm for studying the city,” agrees Gang. She showed off some recent SGA projects, which emphasize accessibility and human connection in sustainable urban ecology.

The increasingly popular Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo has transcended “hip” and gained mass appeal, having recently been voted the number one place to get married in Chicago. With the Nature Boardwalk, Gang and her colleagues explored the history of the site to better understand how they could transform a picturesque 19th century urban pond into a working ecological habitat. “It really stores stormwater; it’s functioning as an ecosystem that does the work that other grey systems have done,” said Gang.

The Nature Boardwalk appeals to humans and animals alike. “It’s become this intense habitat,” said Gang. “There are coyotes coming there at night. Coyotes are viewed as a great animal for the city because they keep the rat population down.”

Gang went on to discuss the role of tall buildings in ecological urban development. Studio Gang’s research has driven them to work with tall buildings that allow for more people to live in a tighter concentration, as these buildings can reduce the carbon footprint. Aqua Tower was finished in 2010 and has won Studio Gang substantial acclaim among architecture critics. “For the Aqua Tower, we were thinking about this exo-spatial quality and how people could start to live on the exterior of the facade,” she said. Aqua Tower does not stand alone; its façade relates to the city through topographic shifts that are tied to views of specific landmarks in the city. The generous balcony spaces are extensions of the interior rooms and enable users to connect with the building’s community, as well as view and feel part of the larger city.

Both Nature Boardwalk and Aqua Tower exemplify the important role of research in informing much of Studio Gang’s work. An exacting research process can give direction to a project in the same way that a traditional client might, allowing for Studio Gang to dream up the built environment from social, historical or technological fodder.

Photos of Aqua Tower by Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing Photographers
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