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Our Gang

Architect Jeanne Gang and her innovative studio

   A city where groundbreaking architecture is embedded in the past, present and future, Chicago is enhancing its reputation with the success of the architectural firm Studio Gang and its founder, Jeanne Gang..Studio Gang’s portfolio covers a broad spectrum of projects—urban living, arts and education, community, residential, interiors and exhibition—in Chicago and as far away as Shanghai, where the architects designed Zhong Bang Village, a community made up of courtyard dwellings. The portfolio also includes Columbia College’s new media production center, which combines large film and animation studios with classrooms and workshops. Worlds away, a 25-story residential building in Hyderabad, India, uses traditional Indian techniques of self-shading in inventive ways.
   Led by Gang, the firm has been piling up awards, with national and international recognition for its innovative and sustainable designs. They were most recently honored with an award of High  Commendation for Chicago’s SOS Community Center at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona. SOS is a not-for-profit agency that trains foster parents and reunites siblings. The community center was designed for maximum use and to accommodate different forms of learning and social interaction.
   Azure Magazine features Gang’s redesign of the former ballroom of the Ambassador West hotel into an apartment. The “Maisonette” is featured as one of five brilliant living spaces in the annual “houses issue.” Gang is, in fact, so innovative she recently placed 22nd on a list of “The Nifty Fifty: America’s Next Household Names”—a compendium of America’s up-and-coming in The New York Times Style Magazine—her stunning design of Aqua in Chicago, the tallest skyscraper ever designed by a female architect. Fast Company magazine deemed the project “Chicks with Bricks.” Being lauded as a female architect means little to Gang, who says she finds the gender reference somewhat odd.
   One of four sisters, the 45-year-old Gang grew up in Belvidere, about 75 miles northwest of Chicago. “I was one of those kids who liked building things,” she says. “I loved math and art and was guided to architecture. I wanted to build in cities.”
   Drive and ambition took her to the University of Illinois for a degree in architecture, followed by a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard. Hired by a European firm, she worked and traveled in Europe, experiencing different cities and urban environments before she chose Chicago over New York to break out on her own.
   “There was more to be built in Chicago, more opportunity,” Gang says. “I was really interested in designing sustainable architecture. Chicago was embracing and enforcing it.” She cites the green roof program as an example, which reduces heat and positively impacts the water that flows into the sewer system. “There’s always been an innovative spirit in Chicago architects. It’s in our DNA.”
   Founded by Gang in 1997, Studio Gang is located above the Aldo outlet store in Wicker Park. The firm has expanded to 6,000 square feet and 35 employees, sharing the building with a communist bookstore, a poetry society and a lawyer. Gang likes the location because it allows her and Studio Gang employees to walk or bike to work, and it’s across the street from the Blue Line, making trips to the airport simple. The parking lot and courtyard area double as experimental spaces to test out new ideas.
   While many architectural firms may specialize, Gang’s people like to figure out new approaches. “People come to us to think about their project,” she says. “It’s like a think tank.” Her design process consists of collaboration with colleagues, consultants and experts in other fields to gain a better understanding of all aspects of the project, including that of cultures and cities. One of those colleagues is her husband and the firm’s managing partner, Mark Schendel. They both worked for the Rem Koolhaus Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam and studied at Harvard.
   The recently completed Aqua, Gang’s first residential skyscraper, is a local testament to her talent for innovation. The 82-story, mixed-use residential tower located in Lakeshore East has hotel rooms, rental units, condominiums, office space, six levels of underground parking and an 8-story base with a 82,500 square-foot terrace with gardens, gazebos, a running track, fire pit, pools and hot tubs.
   The building’s developer, James R. Loewenberg, president of Loewenberg Architects and co-CEO of Magellan Development Groups, needed a young, innovative architect and took a chance on Gang.
   She liked the idea of urban cliff dwellers and designed Aqua’s balconies to form
organic wave-like shapes covering the façade. Gang took the plasticity of concrete to make every balcony a different size and shape, creating balconies deeper on the south than on the north side of the building for sun-shading. Next to the living rooms, they seem like extensions of the interior space. Tinted, reflective glass prevents overheating.
   “Aqua could not have been built 10 years ago,” Gang says. “Making the floors a slightly different shape would not have been economically feasible. Technology makes it possible to share drawings with the contractors on the job site without
taking a lot of extra time. They can pull up a drawing on a hand-held device as they are working.”
   Gang also credits new technology with helping her get her firm started. “Digital resolution has been a great equalizer,” she says. “The work used to be done at large firms where people sat at drawing boards. It makes it easier to compete. You can draw faster, better, collaborate with people around the world and design with more of an edge.”
   Reviews of Aqua have been more than positive. Architecture writer Lynn Becker went so far to say that Gang had ushered in a third school of Chicago architecture.
   One aspect of the building Gang is particularly proud of is that it prevents bird strikes. There is no reflective mirrored glass to attract birds and the skyscraper has a presence and difference the birds can recognize.  According to the animal rights organization PETA, collisions with windows are among the most common human-related killers of migrating birds in North America, resulting in more than 34 million bird deaths annually in urban areas.
   In fact, Studio Gang earned a PETA Proggy Award, which stands for “progress.” This award recognizes animal-friendly achievement in commerce and culture. PETA president Ingrid E. Newkirk said, “The American architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase ‘form follows function.’ In the Aqua Tower, form follows compassion.”
   The Ford Calumet Environmental Center in Calumet was Gang’s first experience with protecting birds. Like a “nest,” building materials were collected from discarded materials in the area, like steel and slag, demonstrating the sustainable principle of re-use. The south-facing porch, an outdoor classroom for visitors, is enclosed with a basketlike mesh of salvaged steel that protects migrating birds from colliding with the glass they cannot see.
   On the wings of Aqua’s success, the firm took on the new Solstice on the Park, a 26-story residential tower. The structure is literally shaped by solar access. The Hyde Park building’s surface is optimally angled 71 degrees for Chicago’s latitude, and the glass allows sun to enter the apartments during winter for passive solar warming while keeping it out during the summer to reduce air-conditioning usage.
   Gang is currently taking her love of nature to the South Pond at the Lincoln Park Zoo, where she has been collaborating with experts in water hydrology and landscape artists to improve the pond. Part of the challenge is finding ways to improve the water quality of the pond and deepening the pond to make it possible for fish to swim below thte surface and survive the winter.
   For the open-air educational pavilion next to the pond, Gang is working with boat makers and different lumber manufacturers to create a double curvature with smaller levels of woods creating a laminate. Both the structure and pond will be sustainable.
   Gang envisions designing museums and other public buildings. Another intriguing idea to her is the design of structures for the performing arts, where large numbers of people come together for a shared experience. Studio Gang was recently selected as one of three finalists out of 114 entries from 33 countries in an open international competition for its design of a music center in Taipei, Taiwan. The Taipei City Government Department of Cultural Affairs wanted the performance center to promote and celebrate Taiwan’s role as a global center of pop music performance and production.
   The architect appreciates all of the kudos and recognition, but her sights are set on the future. “We still have a lot to do,” she says.

Published: February 07, 2010
Issue: February 2010 Innovation Issue