Jeanne Gang: The Art of Nesting

Whether it’s a condo tower or community center, Jeanne Gang’s approach to materials and construction remains bold and ingenious.

I’m chasing Jeanne Gang up a series of rough wooden ladders made of two-by-fours to the 25th floor of the job site at Aqua, a massive high-rise condo in downtown Chicago a few blocks from Lake Michigan and Millennium Park. It’s the top, for today, of what will be an 82-story skyscraper in Lakeshore East, a new neighborhood above the former Illinois Central rail yard. The crane is preparing to launch a table form from a few floors below and drop it onto steel braces being bolted to the reinforced-concrete core. But right now it’s swinging bundles of rebar through the sky as steelworkers drill holes and weave metal strands through structural columns. Cement masons sidle around the platform banging it into place, framing the curving edges of the formwork and pulling mechanical elements through the plywood.

This will be one of the tallest buildings in Chicago, the birth­place of the modern skyscraper. It will also be one of the greenest and most appealing tall buildings in a place that has produced some of the country’s best architecture. It feels like I’m in a tree house, and it isn’t just the maze of wooden ladders. It’s also Gang’s quiet enjoyment and self-possessed determination. She’s unfazed by the size of the project or her achievement at a mere 44 years old. Barely a dozen years after moving to Chicago and kicking off her own practice, she’s making a leap to what young architects rarely and female architects almost never have done—building on a scale that will have a major impact on their city.

But the tree-house feeling comes more than anything from Gang’s habits of thought about materials and construction processes. The workers, to her mind, are building a nest. The bundles of rebar are twigs collected and threaded together, and the layers of concrete pumped up and vibrated into place are like mounds. Their composition and how they merge together are what really drive form-making in her studio.

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“You couldn’t have done all that variety ten years ago,” she says of the undulating slabs. “Because our tools are connected to digital tools on the job site, they can lay out these different curves without too much trouble. It takes an unbelievable amount of human know-how and coordination to put a building together, and architects sometimes focus on technology so much that they fetishize it. I think it helps to embrace the messy side of the construction site and understand it more, as opposed to just hanging out in the studio focused on 3-D drawings.”

For Aqua, she took a standard slab-and-column structure and gently tweaked it by extending the reinforced-concrete slabs to create rippling balconies that serve as passive solar shading, give residents enhanced views of the city, and produce a new landmark in the skyline. “It’s part of the construction idea of the building,” she says. “It’s not like I start out going, ‘Here’s my shape, how do I make it?’ It’s more like, ‘How do I build it?’ And then we developed the form in relation to the views around it and the environmental targets that needed to be achieved.”

The environmental features just strike me as good architecture and urbanism: conversion of a brownfield site, proximity to mass transportation, passive east-west orientation, heat-resistant or reflective glass where balconies don’t already provide shading, and water collection and storage to irrigate a green roof. She was able to incorporate most of it without any impetus from the client, who later saw an interest in applying for LEED certification.

After chasing her back down the wooden ladders and around 23 flights of stairs, I jump into Gang’s hybrid Prius to visit her most recently finished project, a foster-care-counseling and community center on the South Side. On the way, she drives past Millennium Park and points out Anish Kapoor’s brightly polished stainless-steel Cloud Gate sculpture, which absorbs the entire Chicago skyline onto its glossy surface. She has mentioned it a few times, and I immediately grasp its sig­nifi­cance: before long, Aqua will appear there alongside Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Sears Tower, Edward Durell Stone’s Aon Center, Louis Sullivan’s Gage Building, and Daniel Burnham’s People’s Gas Building.

A native of Belvidere, Illinois—a small town beyond the outskirts of Chicagoland—and the daughter of a civil engineer, Gang developed an affection for materials, buildings, and the landscape watching her dad trace roads and bridges through rural Illinois and taking summer road trips to engineering landmarks across the country. “I really like roads still,” she says. “Going on a road trip, each one is like a linear piece of infrastructure that connects spaces. I always remember going to Mesa Verde, this big canyon out West where cliff dwellers are living in the face, but on top it’s this totally flat mesa. Things like that just get your imagination going. I didn’t come from a town that had much architecture, except we did have one tiny building by Frank Lloyd Wright.”

After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), she spent a few years commuting between the Office for Met­ropolitan Architecture’s (OMA) office in Rotterdam, the Grand Palais project in Lille, and the seminal Maison à Bordeaux before returning to Illinois. After a short stint at Booth Han­sen, in Chicago, she struck out on her own.

“It was a hunch that Jeanne had,” says Mark Schendel, her partner in the firm, and also a GSD grad and OMA alum, who joined her in Chicago in 1998. “She could have gone to New York or Los Angeles or some other place to get started, but she had a couple of things going for her here—a certain knowledge of the city and people in the area—and it seemed that Chicago had been a little bit complacent and sleepy architecturally for some twenty years. She saw that the city had this untapped potential. There was a clientele and an opportunity, and being outside the center of a design nexus, the spotlight is not as hot, so clients might go for a talented but untested firm.”

Gang quickly made herself a fixture in the area’s architectural firmament, beginning with a 1997 commission to build the Starlight Theatre, in Rockford, Illinois, an $8.5 million open-air performance space with a folding kinetic roof on the campus of Rock Valley College, not far from her hometown. “Jeanne is very much a Midwestern architect,” says Stanley Tigerman, who has collaborated with Gang on several exhibitions, a book, and an upcoming unreleased project. “She got nothing from Harvard as best as I can tell. Her work is not frivolous, which you would expect from an Ivy League school. It’s about structure and construction. It’s rational but also poetic, and she’s quite willing to take a risk with structure. It’s a very Chicago kind of thing, the fascination with how you make things, how you structure things, how materials play into form. She will take a material and push it to its limit and a little further. She has immense courage, therefore she’s as good an architect as they get, gender notwithstanding, because I don’t know a lot of guys that have the balls to do what she does.”

Gang has created an information map pinpointing buildings of note that appear in Chicago’s American Institute of Architects guide. A lot of her work up to now has happened in areas she calls “architecture deserts,” neighborhoods cut off from the potentially transformative experience of inspiring spaces. “It correlates very closely with race,” she says. “You can see how certain segments of the population are not even getting exposed to architecture. It’s so crazy because architecture can really transform your life, especially if you experience it at a very early age.”

Studio Gang’s community center for the SOS Children’s Vil­lage, a nonprofit that provides housing and social services to foster families on Chicago’s South Side, is located in a tough neighborhood next to a railway overpass on a donated sliver of land where the organization had already started building two rows of vernacular single-family and foster homes. Gang’s task was to collect donated materials as they became available and use them to craft a building that would serve as a soft entryway to the block, connect with the neighborhood, and create a new kind of spatial experience inside for foster families and the surrounding community.

“The project is really about finding a process to deal with in-kind donations and leftovers,” she says. “Originally we had this brick screen that showed the space in between the layers of the facade, but the price was just not working, so at some point I said to the client, ‘Why don’t we just take the brick off the building? It’s only a screen anyway.’ ”

The resulting corner pavilion is a deceptively simple cantilevered structure with wavy bands created by unevenly pouring three different mixes of concrete, leaving traces of the construction process. The lighter concrete has more portland cement in it, the gray more fly ash, and the dark one a different aggregate, making the last two stronger as structural elements. “We’re supposed to stay out of means and methods because that’s only the responsibility of the contractor,” Gang says. “But you’ve got to get into means and methods, otherwise how are you going to know how to make it or what’s possible? Usually your general contractor is standing between you and the subs, but when you’re engaging the material at this level they have to bring you together with the people actually doing the work. This was poured-in-place concrete, and the contractor said, ‘There’s going to be a big ugly joint because you cannot pour it all at once.’ So we said, ‘What if we just use different mixes to emphasize the variation and preserve the fluidity of the material?’ Concrete is always treated like it’s a solid stone material, but it’s really this fluid.”

Inside the entrance, two staircases flooded with daylight ascend to a large community room and a wing of counseling offices, forming a gateway that doubles as seating for film screenings. The ground-floor classrooms and play areas, each with access to an outdoor playground, are splashed with bright nonprimary colors and decked with carpets donning simple figurative patterns. It’s as first-class as it gets, donated materials or not, and the impact on the community is already visible. The surrounding blocks have all been spruced up with fresh coats of paint and repointed bricks. As people from the neighborhood walk up in their church clothes and make their way upstairs for a wake, a teenager watching us tour the building flashes a beaming smile. “If somebody experiences a building like this as a kid, it’s really going to change their outlook,” Gang says. “That’s why we’re trying to do projects in the architecture desert.”

Back at the studio—with at least four projects well into schematic design and construction documents and a concept for a high-rise housing block in Hyderabad, India, being sent out in about an hour—the 30 or so members of Studio Gang look surprisingly relaxed. Teams of designers are grouped in hives of activity throughout the office, one working on a film-and-media school for Chicago’s Columbia College that uses sunlight and framing devices to simulate cinematic effects, another on a condo development next to Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, whose form is determined by passive solar strategies, unit sizes, and CAD engineering tools that allow as much light as possible through the structure.

Schendel, married to Gang since 1998, has been managing things back in the office and gets a lot of credit for the collegial atmosphere. While Gang is slightly secluded at the back in a private office with a door and a row of bird’s nests along the windowsill, he sits at a long desk near the front that’s a bit like a captain’s mast, directing activity. Once in a while he calls her in to look at a drawing, but otherwise things seem to be humming along.

“She’s a strong and talented designer, and doesn’t put that in anybody’s face here,” Schendel says. “She’s easy to work with in that regard. She’s going to say what she has to say about a job and give a strong opinion, but she enjoys very much collaborating and hearing other people’s ideas. If there’s anything I offer to it, it’s listening carefully but being firm when you have to maintain a schedule. My style is to let people take as much responsibility as they can and empowering everybody to achieve what­ever level of responsibility on a project they can.”

The Hyderabad team is crowded around the conference-room table flipping through the book of drawings, joking, and checking for spelling errors. One of the designers comes in with an adjusted rendering showing a detail of its tiered courtyard, and everyone cheers. “This is much better,” Gang says. “That’s going to be perfect. We’re almost there!” She heads back to her office to finish the submission text.

The initial concept for Hyderabad was to mirror the style of traditional Indian homes on the scale of the high-rise; cascading balconies in the courtyard, inspired by the ornamented columns and friezes of the Gujarat stepwells, were meant to preserve cool air in the interior. But the client wanted to market the development as separate buildings, so they sliced the rectangular block in a stepped pattern to create air corridors in between. “I like to bounce things off people,” she says. “I’m less likely to sit in here and do a sketch and then deliver it. I would more likely think of an idea and go out there immediately and ask, ‘What do you think of this?’ I have to hear a response.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the office slowly assembles around dark wooden tables lit by homemade pendant lamps in the kitchen, popping open their Friday afternoon beers and bags of chips. The studio, a former bank building in Wicker Park, was renovated and expanded last summer using recycled materials. Behind them on the balcony, a few signs of spring sprout from rooftop plantings: a miniature catalpa tree, English ivy, and wisteria and trumpet vines that extend over fanning trellises made of welded rebar.

The trellises are another sign of things to come at Studio Gang: they were built to test ideas for the Ford Calumet Environmental Center, a project on the far South Side that takes Gang’s affinity for nest­ing metaphors to a logical extreme. It will be composed entirely of materials salvaged from the surrounding industrial landscape, with a mesh of recycled steel arranged like wild grasses and criss­crossing columns resembling tepees enclosing an observation deck that incorporates geothermal heating, water-collection systems, and wind turbines, and will look out on 117 acres of wilderness.

Gang has participated in many local advocacy projects over the years. When the city was talking about issuing its last remaining casino license way out by the airport in 2002, she sent out a series of postcards with speculative renderings of an urban eco-casino. In 2003 Tigerman invited her to envision a new gateway to Chicago, and she reconceived its pedestrian highway overpasses as green markets and urban farms.

By Schendel’s desk I notice an oversize postcard from a group opposed to a children’s museum the mayor wants to build in Grant Park. I ask her whether it’s something she’s involved in. “I usually don’t get involved in things that are negative,” she says. “They want to build it, great. I’m more interested when there’s a potential that is not being seen. What could it be? It’s just like, wait, there’s a potential here for architecture, for cities, for urban density, for all kinds of things. My thing is more like trying to get something positive to happen.”

Watch videos featuring Gang’s SOS Children’s Vil­lage and Aqua tower below. Videos were produced by Chicago’s Spirit of Space

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