Architect Jeanne Gang takes her hybrid of engineering and ecology to new heights.
BY WILLIAM HANLEY
PHOTOS BY LUCY HEWETT
April 27, 2017
When architect Jeanne Gang started her firm, nearly 20 years ago, there was no question that she would set up shop in Chicago. “I really wanted to be able to work with a city that’s not complete,” she says, looking out over the low-rise Wicker Park neighborhood from the roof-deck above her studio. From the neighborhood’s rooftops, the city’s skyline appears as purple bars against the dull yellow light of a late-winter day. “Chicago has a small center within a very large territory,” she continues. “It seemed like there would be an ability to experiment here.” In the decades since, her experiments have made Gang the city’s most prominent architect in a generation.
As she narrates Studio Gang’s rise from a few small but celebrated projects to its current roster of commissions, Gang speaks with an unfussy precision, radiating a deep intelligence wrapped in a quick smile and Midwestern understatement. When she comes to Vista Tower, a residential and hotel project that broke ground there last year, she gestures in the direction of downtown. When it is completed, in 2019, it will be the third-tallest building in Chicago—Trump Tower’s spire will just edge it out of second place. “The clients had two requirements,” she says. “One was that it must look like the renderings. Two was that it be among the tallest buildings in the city.”
Gang doesn’t share their taste for superlatives. She is notoriously humble. But she finds herself designing at this scale thanks to one brag-worthy work. Seven years ago, Gang completed Aqua Tower, an 82-story building with one of the city’s most distinctive profiles. Its curving concrete floor plates protrude beyond its glass facade to create a rippling effect, a vertical echo of the waves on Lake Michigan. It was an immediate hit, drawing praise from critics and quickly reaching civic icon status. Most of Chicago’s recent towers, no matter how tall, have played it safe from a design point of view. Aqua gave the city that invented the skyscraper its first head-turning building decades.
It was also a first for Gang. The architect had never designed a tower before receiving the Aqua commission, and it changed her career. Since its completion, the now 53-year-old Illinois native has received a MacArthur Fellowship, her studio was the subject of an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Aqua is on the cover of the most recent edition of the American Institute of Architects Guide to Chicago. Studio Gang has major projects in the works around the world, and it has grown from fewer than 20 people before Aqua to nearly 100 working out of offices in Chicago and New York, with plans to expand in San Francisco. In addition to two skyscrapers underway, her firm’s omnivorous diet varies from cultural institutions and university buildings to urban planning schemes, civic projects, and single-family homes. The ingredient connecting all of them is the way they reflect Gang’s own sensibilities. She has an eye for formal élan, but she backs it up with research, attention to materials, and a sensitivity to the natural world. In her best work, surprising gestures are firmly rooted. Now, as her practice grows, Gang is adapting those qualities for an even larger scale.
Gang grew up in Belvidere, Illinois, a small town about 70 miles west of Chicago. Her father was an engineer and she frequently cites stopping to look at bridges on family road trips as an early influence. She also recalls building ice castles by creating large mounds of snow and then pouring water into them to carve out tunnels. Whatever her childhood motivation, she went on to study architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and did a stint in the 1990s working for OMA in Rotterdam, where her contemporaries included a who’s who of now-renowned designers. She left to start Studio Gang in 1997, eventually establishing an office in Wicker Park not far from her current space.
The firm designed everything from high-end houses to a renovation of a 1960s theater that added an operable roof—it opens like blooming flower petals—never specializing in a particular type of work. “It’s like an art practice, where you’re working on issues that you think are interesting, but the medium is variable,” she says. Gang connected even her most artful projects back to the practicalities of material and engineering, which caught the eye of James Loewenberg, co-CEO of Magellan Development Group, the company behind Aqua. “We had to do something beautiful but affordable,” Loewenberg says. Despite its recognizable profile, Aqua’s curves are simple extensions of an otherwise standard building’s floor plates. That said, it took some convincing to get the contractors on board with the shape. “She listens to other people without imposing her ideas,” Loewenberg says. “She’s very strong, but she will listen if you make a rational argument.” Gang prevailed, and the result transformed her studio. “It gave us visibility that we never had before,” she says. “It felt like hitting a grand slam on your first shot at it.”
Gang now has projects all over the world—from urban-planning work to the new U.S. Embassy in Brazil—and continues to draw accolades. “She hasn’t done any crap,” says Stanley Tigerman, an eminent Chicago architect known for his unfiltered critiques. “With people like BIG [Bjarke Ingels Group], it’s all about showing off. Jeanne is grounded, but she’s also courageous enough to carry something to its limit. That’s unusual for an architect.”
Gang points out the breadth and variety of the firm’s work as she leads a tour of the studio, pausing at various models of works in progress to explain details. The space is a 19,400-square-foot art deco building from the 1930s that once served as a Polish-American community center. The firm stripped back decades of unfortunate renovations to reveal original details including patches of handsome wood paneling, and they successfully had the building designated as a landmark. Designers occupy desks in the center of each open-plan floor while pinned-up drawings and models line the perimeters. It’s quiet despite the growing staff. From the firm’s early days, Gang has worked with Mark Schendel, an architect to whom she is married, and who focuses on the management side of the practice. “Any designer really needs someone who’s going to be holding down the business side,” Gang says. “It’s pretty hard to do both.”
Thanks to the dark wood on the walls, Gang’s own office resembles an early-20th-century naturalist’s study, minus the taxidermy. It does have a glass cabinet displaying the designer’s bird’s nest collection. Architecture was a gateway drug to birdwatching for Gang, who took up the hobby after researching new ways to prevent birds from crashing into glass-covered buildings. “Something like 975 million birds every year are killed by window glass in North America alone,” she says. Above the studio, Gang’s firm added an aerie of its own. The event space in which we’re speaking is a glass box—of course with fritting on the windows to alert avian visitors to the presence of the panes. It opens onto a green roof that is planted with native grasses. (Last year’s wheat harvest was a bumper crop. This year, the firm is putting in beehives.)
Gang enjoys navigating the space where nature connects—or collides—with human constructions. She has done it on a small scale with a boardwalk at the Lincoln Park Zoo and with bigger projects, including work on a multiphase remaking of Northerly Island, a man-made peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan, and a large-scale riverfront planning project in Memphis. Her first tower in New York, an office building named 40 Tenth Avenue, slated to break ground this year, has one side shaved away so that it doesn’t block sunlight from reaching the adjacent High Line. Gang says her work is less about an individual’s experience of the natural world than it is about our collective engagement with the environment, and she finds it troubling that her sensibility has become a political position. “Our society is so polarized,” she says. “But going forward, we’re going to have to talk with one another if we’re going to preserve our environment.”
She has repeatedly turned her attention to the Chicago River. For a century the city treated the waterway as an open sewer, and for decades it suffered from lingering pollution and neglect. In 2011, Gang published Reverse Effect, a book detailing how restoring Chicago’s waterfronts could benefit the city’s communities. “The conclusion we came up with was that we need to give people access to the river even though it’s dirty,” says Gang. She has since designed two boathouses on the river, which has benefitted from a wave of civic investment in cleanup and the completion of the Riverwalk (the subject of the feature“Turning Back,” in our Feb. 2017 issue). The most recent boathouse opened last year and has a jagged roofline that, Gang says, derives its drama from the kinetics of rowing. “Her writing about the Chicago River was influential in terms of shifting thinking about how it could be used as a recreational and residential asset,” says Blair Kamin, architecture critic at the Chicago Tribune.
Gang is as concerned with people as she is with nature. Her design for a new building at New York’s American Museum of Natural History aims to make it easier find your way through the institution. The plan, channeling the ice castles of her childhood, is to connect the museum’s existing buildings through a sunlit concrete canyon that houses galleries and a theater. At the University of Chicago, a recently completed building combines three residential towers that have elegantly angled facades with ground-level cafés, gardens, and plazas. The complex frames a welcoming entrance to campus.
Her newly completed Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois, pays as much attention to its social spaces as it does to the theater and black box that it houses. The heart of the building is a double-height glass atrium with an angular grand staircase leading up to a mezzanine gallery. On the theater’s opening night, in March, the configuration provided patrons in this comfortably heeled suburb with plenty of vantages for checking out each other’s self-consciously eccentric outfits. The space is understated, but it effortlessly sets a scene. “Aqua got a lot of attention, but it was a limited-scope commission, since Jeanne only had responsibility for the exterior,” Kamin says. “It has been exciting to see projects like the Writers Theatre that unite the classic triumvirate of space, structure, and materials in wonderful ways.”
Gang’s rise coincides with a moment of renewed visibility for Chicago architecture, and the city will be in the spotlight again when the second edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial opens, in September. “I think that there’s a sense of a real need for architecture here. There’s work to be done, and the challenge is figuring out how to match that need with the talent that we have in the city,” says Sarah Herda, director at the Graham Foundation and co-curator of the biennial’s first installment. “It’s not just this incredible, historical legacy. We have an architectural culture that’s moving forward, and there’s a lot of optimism.” She adds that growing firms like Gang’s and John Ronan Architects, paired with dynamic university programs, draw talent from around the world to the city.
Gang now spends almost half her time in New York, where she has several projects underway, but with Vista on the horizon, her presence in Chicago is shaping up to be even bigger. She is working with Magellan and Chinese real-estate giant Dalian Wanda Group on the tower. When it tops out at nearly 1,200 feet, it will dwarf Aqua, but it will share some of the smaller building’s expressiveness. Vista’s three volumes wear their engineering on their sleeves, undulating as they rise and making apparent how the components wil reinforce one another against Chicago’s wind. “Sometimes I worry that every Jeanne Gang building now has some sculptural flourish that is designed to help a developer sell condos or rent apartments. She’s very good at rationalizing the expressionism, and usually she does it for the right reasons,” Kamin says. “The challenge for her is going to be whether she can create the same magic in a larger scale.” Tigerman thinks Gang is spreading herself too thin. “She’s gotten too big,” he says. “It’s hard for her to control the work. What became huge in the past is no longer relevant—look at Microsoft or SOM.”
Gang brushes off questions about her work losing its way as her practice grows. “I really like working at different scales, with different media, different materials,” she says. “You need intuition to know what’s going to be a great project, but there are very recognizable signs when something looks positive.” No matter how large or fast her firm grows, when Vista rises, Gang will have further cemented her place in the skyline, among the purple bars, and in the pantheon of designers who have shaped Chicago.