Architect Jeanne Gang forging relationships within communities with the built form

Famous for the Aqua Tower in Chicago, Jeanne Gang’s works sit at the crossroads of nature, culture and community driven design; the reputed American architect turns 56 today.

by Jincy Iype Published on : Mar 19, 2020

“Most people think architects design buildings and cities. What we really design are relationships – because cities are about people – they are places where people come together for all kinds of exchange” – Jeanne Gang

From designing high risers that reach the skies to small scale structures that sit humbly on the ground, American architect Jeanne Gang’s architecture does not merely build structures and cities - her architecture builds relationships – relationships between humans and the built world, and with each other. Best known for designing the Aqua Tower in Chicago, United States in 2010, Gang is a leader and founder of Studio Gang, an architecture and urban design firm established in 1997. Gang and her team have long been applying insights from ecology to the built form, the works sitting at crossroads of nature, culture and community driven design.

STIR celebrates the alpha female who turns 56 today, going over her striking oeuvre and deconstructing her design philosophy.

Brought up in Belvidere, Illinois, Gang graduated with a Bachelors degree in architecture from the University of Illinois (1986) and earned her Masters degree in architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (1993). Before establishing Studio Gang, she worked with Rem Koolhaas at OMA in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

  • The Aqua Tower in Chicago by Studio Gang | Jeanne Gang | STIRworld
    The Aqua Tower in Chicago by Studio Gang Image Credit: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, Butler V. Adams, © Studio Gang
  • The rippling façade of the Aqua Tower in Chicago by Studio Gang | Jeanne Gang | STIRworld
    The rippling façade of the Aqua Tower in Chicago by Studio Gang Image Credit: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, Butler V. Adams, © Studio Gang

Gang’s creative and analytical design process has produced many projects across scales and typologies – from cultural to urban designs and from skyscrapers to theatres. With headquarters in Chicago, and offices in New York, San Francisco and Paris, Studio Gang’s portfolio includes the Writers Theatre in Illinois, Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo, Solar Carve in New York City, among others. Studio Gang also dabbles extensively in research, exhibitions and publication works, and is currently working on expanding the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and building mixed-use towers in Toronto, Chicago, Amsterdam, and Los Angeles.  

The most striking feature of the Aqua Tower – its continuous rippling façade - seems to mirror the natural topography of hills and flowing water, formed due to the uneven balconies that jut out from the building’s 82 stories. The Aqua Tower remains till date, the tallest building ever designed by a woman-led architectural firm.

The Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois (2016) sits amid verdant landscapes, its form issued forth with timber trusses with light wood lattice. The theatre lights up at night, emanating golden light, and inviting onlookers to venture into this civic and cultural space.

Writer's Theatre in Illinois by Studio Gang, led by Jeanne Gang | Jeanne Gang | STIRworld
Writer's Theatre in Illinois by Studio Gang, led by Jeanne Gang Image Credit: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, © Studio Gang

Studio Gang’s Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago (2010) broadcasts a wonderful tale of transition. The unsustainable urban pond built in 1908 was transformed by Gang and her team into an ecological habitat thriving with people and other forms of life. “A pavilion integrated into the boardwalk sequence provides shelter for open-air classes, programs, and events on site. Altogether, the design improves water quality and plant variety for a better, more diverse animal habitat, reduces reliance on aging city infrastructure, and creates an experiential outdoor educational environment,” explains Studio Gang.

  • A pavilion integrated into the boardwalk sequence at the Lincoln Park Zoo provides shelter for events on site | Jeanne Gang | STIRworld
    A pavilion integrated into the boardwalk sequence at the Lincoln Park Zoo provides shelter for events on site Image Credit: Tom Harris Photography, © Studio Gang
  • Studio Gang’s Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago | Jeanne Gang | STIRworld
    Studio Gang’s Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago Image Credit: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, © Studio Gang

One of her recent projects, the Solar Carve in New York City (2019) draws from Studio Gang’s ‘solar carving’ process, which looks at enhancing visual and planned connectivity in high risers. The process involved designing with the sun’s incident angles, which resulted in the stunning, gem-like façade of the structure.

  • The gem-like façade of the Solar Carve in New York City designed by Studio Gang | Jeanne Gang | STIRworld
    The gem-like façade of the Solar Carve in New York City designed by Studio Gang Image Credit: Tom Harris Photography, © Studio Gang
  • Studio Gang’s Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago | Jeanne Gang | STIRworld
    Studio Gang’s Solar Carve’s façade detail Image Credit: Timothy Schenck, © Studio Gang

Studio Gang’s ongoing research project, the Polis Station, aims to reconnect the community with police stations, by exploring how the stations can also serve as full time community centres. Drawing from the Greek meaning of Polis (a tight-knit community), the project reorients police stations towards the public, to becoming urban hubs of activity, providing better social cohesion through architecture. The studio describes - “the project lays out a series of physical and programmatic steps that can be taken to activate police stations as civic assets.”

Polis Station – axonometric drawing | Jeanne Gang | STIRworld
Polis Station – axonometric drawing Image Credit: © Studio Gang

Jeanne Gang is committed to study and realise how a space’s physicality can become catalysts to forge better community relations, a maxim observed throughout her work. Gang became a MacArthur Fellow in 2011, followed by the National Design Award for Architecture from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in 2013. She was named the 2016 Woman Architect of the Year by the Architectural Review and also presented at the TEDWomen Conference; subsequently, she also received the Louis I. Kahn Memorial Award in 2017 and was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2018, she was bestowed with the lifetime honour of being elected an International Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Time magazine listed her in the 100 most influential people of 2019 – the only architect to do so in that year.

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