Jeanne Gang Makes a Case for Architectural Grafting

The award-winning architect has dedicated decades of her firm’s work toward adaptive reuse, which she likens to horticultural grafting—connecting two separate plants into a thriving new structure—in a new book.

The Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation at the American Museum of Natural History. Photography by Iwan Baan

In her new book, The Art of Architectural Grafting, Jeanne Gang argues that architects must do more than pay lip service when it comes to sustainable design. Instead of flashy, surface-level interventions like adorning building exteriors with green walls, the acclaimed architect and Surface cover star urges her peers to implement more impactful carbon-reducing strategies such as forgoing the demolition of buildings and increasing existing buildings’ intensity of use. To demonstrate, she brings readers into her garden.

“Grafting” is a horticultural practice that involves connecting two separate plants—one old, one new—so they grow and function as one, producing a thriving plant with more useful and desirable qualities. In her book, Gang points to these principles as an example for architecture to follow, using some of her firm’s recent projects as a template. For instance, instead of tearing down the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts’ scattershot, inward-facing buildings, the firm devised a harmonious structure that united the campus and bestowed Little Rock with a cultural landmark. In New York, the long-awaited expansion of the American Museum of Natural History drastically improved poor circulation and wayfinding with a dramatic, cave-like atrium that swoops and bends through five levels of vertical space.

The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts. Photography by Iwan Baan

Not all grafting makes for good architecture, though. Gang warns of misguided interventions: Viennese firm Coop Himmelb(l)au’s insect-like Rooftop Remodeling Falkestrasse quite literally resembles a parasite perched within a traditional building. Successful grafting can be felt from within and beyond: she points to Rafael Moneo’s expansion of Madrid’s Prado Museum into the cloister of St. Jerónimo el Real; she praises peers like Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, who have dedicated their careers to modifying dilapidated structures into affordable housing. Sprinkled throughout the book are original sketches, architectural diagrams, and photographs drawn from decades of Gang’s research into adaptive reuse.

“Tabula rasa thinking was once avant-garde, but the climate crisis shows us we need a new way forward,” Gang said in a statement. “With the concept of architectural grafting, I hope to open new pathways for designers to seize the moment and reorient architectural practice—not just out of environmental necessity, but to renew our role as cultural leaders who envision and create a different future. Grafting has enriched my own thinking and practice, and I hope it sparks new conversations and ideas for our field.”

Image courtesy of Park Books
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