Jeanne Gang, MArch 93, Winner of MacArthur Foundation Genius Award, Talks about Intellectual Intensity and Breadth at GSD and in Her Work

For Jeanne Gang, who was just awarded one of the twenty-two $500,000 no-strings-attached MacArthur Fellowships, her time as a student and (last semester) as a studio critic at the GSD has meant primarily an experience of intellectual intensity and broadening. “My fellow students were the most important part of my life there for the way we exchanged ideas and engaged in rigorous debate. I also discovered that at Harvard there were always things outside the confines of the immediate architectural courses that could illuminate the architectural issues.”

In the Spring of 2011, when she taught the “Center for Limnology: Divided Waters in Chicago” studio here, she was delighted to find that, after teaching, she could attend an evening lecture series, “Evolution Matters” at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. When in 1992 she was a student in a GSD seminar on feminism and architecture taught by Homa Farjadi, what most engaged her interest was the dialogue with guest speakers that were invited from outside the field. As Farjadi presented it, feminist thought posits the idea that insights are to be gained from looking at society from its margins, where fresh perspectives on the center can be gained. This idea was reinforced by her exposure to deconstructive and other forms of critical thinking in Michael Hays’s theory course.

With her Fellowship money, she plans to increase this kind of intellectual expansion within her firm’s work, funding research on technology and materials, and collaborations with experts from other disciplines. She has been doing this kind of thing already: working with an ornithologist to try to prevent bird collisions with windows at the Ford Calumet Environmental Center; working with ecologists to prevent invasive fish species from the Mississippi River entering the Great Lakes by designing a project to de-reverse the flow of the Chicago River; and more.

For MoMA’s upcoming exhibition “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” her multi-disciplinary team interviewed residents going through foreclosures and found that they were more focused on jobs than on any desire for conventional suburban houses—thus her firm designed residences that would combine living and working spaces and be better suited to 21st century family sizes and compositions.

The intellectual breadth that appeals to Gang seems more and more necessary for the kinds of projects her firm is securing: those with complex urbanistic issues to address beyond the design of single buildings. She is now working on the redevelopment of Northerly Island, a 91-acre peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan in Chicago and that used to house an airport.

As she uses her MacArthur Fellowship to expand her horizons even further, she says, “I hope that I can continue to come back to the GSD for new jolts of intensity!” She is speaking on a panel at the GSD’s Alumni Weekend on October 15.
Article by William S. Saunders, Editor, Harvard Design Magazine