Jeanne Gang MArch ’93 visits Cambridge

Despite poor weather conditions, dozens of faculty, students, and design professionals flocked to the GSD’s Piper Auditorium on February 12th to hear Jeanne Gang MArch ’93 of Studio Gang Architects (SGA) speak about her firm’s compelling work and research-based approach to design. All were eager to meet the award-winning architect, whose projects are continually highlighted by both mainstream and industry-specific news media. 

Reflecting upon their time as students together at the GSD, Professor of Architecture Grace La AB ’92, MArch ’95 introduced Gang, “There was one woman with striking red auburn hair who was always working—she had a dogged persistence and tenacity. That woman, it turns out, was Jeanne Gang.” Citing her numerous professional accomplishments, including the 2011 MacArthur Genius Grant, her passion for sustainability, and her innovative Chicago-based practice, La welcomed Gang as “our genius.”

Gang’s lecture, Expeditions in the Contemporary City, focused on both her firm’s process and their attractive, forward-thinking projects. She discussed post-industrial urban areas, tall buildings, and a new definition of technology for the built environment.  SGA is best known for several iconic projects. The Aqua Tower, with its rippling façade and sinuous pavilion that anchors the Nature Boardwalk at the Lincoln Park Zoo, are the most recognizable. However, the firm is also a standout within the profession for its robust research program. As a testament to this, in 2012 the Art Institute of Chicago honored the firm with an exciting solo exhibition, Buildings: Inside Studio Gang Architects, which focused largely on the unique research process. Later in the evening, Gang would share that the firm delivers to their clients not only drawings for every project, but also a full bibliography of background materials and research.

Gang began the evening by discussing SGA’s eco-salon on the pollution and neglect of the Calumet River landfill near Chicago. The firm’s detailed research on this topic ultimately spawned both a book, Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways, and a GSD options studio in the spring of 2011—Center for Limnology: Divided Waters in Chicago, which focused on how architects envisioned a future for this polluted river. (Though a serious topic, at one point Gang lightened the mood with images of an invasive fish species leaping up and startling humans.)  

According to Gang, “If you do what you really care about, the results will start to fall in line.” True to her words, SGA received two commissions based on their research: the WMS Boathouse at Clark Park along the Chicago River, and the Nature Boardwalk at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Both these projects create active environments that engage people with the natural environment within the city. “It’s about making urban spaces livable,” she proclaimed to the audience. “In our firm, technology equals information. That’s where the revolution is happening,” Gang reflected as she began a slideshow of projects, which highlighted SGA’s use of smart technology, innovative field research, and intense collaboration.

For an exhibition at MOMA entitled Foreclosed—Researching the American Dream, SGA looked at the inner ring suburb of Cicero, Illinois to try to determine why it had such a high foreclosure rate. Gang shared a photo of a bungalow with seven mailboxes—it had been subdivided into affordable units. This exposed a broad array of social issues that were addressed through community-based conversation and collaborative design. SGA ultimately proposed a creative live / work environment with flexible units to simultaneously address the housing crisis and to encourage cottage industry.

After winning a competition to reimagine Chicago’s Northerly Island, 90 acres of prime lakefront landfill, SGA organized public meetings and energized the community by linking the former airfield to the city as a park by creating a natural habitat for star gazing, fish, and birds. According to Gang, the park is one third complete, with the remainder awaiting construction.

At the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College, SGA put their spin on the clandestine nature of traditional social justice spaces. The firm’s design combines openness with privacy, and anchors multi-function spaces around a central hearth—literally a sunken fire pit in the middle of the building. In researching materials for the project—a 2014 Top 10 Big Project by Azure Magazine—SGA revived a local, low-tech tradition: cordwood construction. For this method, white cedar is mixed with cement to craft the walls. Though a relatively inexpensive approach, the result is a high-performance, low-carbon-emitting facade. Ever the consummate researchers, SGA designers took a hands-on approach and organized a workshop taught by a local craftsman for both SGA staff and the building contractor. The result is beyond spectacular.

As part of her lecture, Gang acknowledged her debt to the School, “I owe a lot to the GSD, the people I met here, the teachers, and my thesis, which still resonates in the things that I work on today.” A brief Q+A closed the evening, with questions that ranged from what the opening date is for Northerly Island, to how to develop a program for socially conscious projects.

The morning after Gang’s lecture, twenty-five members of the GSD’s Women in Design (WiD) group welcomed Gang back to Gund Hall for an informal breakfast and free flowing conversation. Charlotte Lipschitz MArch ’15, former WiD Chair, was happy to hear Gang speak directly to issues facing the group. “She urged successful women in the field to become more visible—her argument being that the more someone like herself could show up on reviews or in the press, the more likely young women in the design fields are to feel confident in their potential.” WiD advocates for gender diversity at all levels, both at the GSD and beyond.

The group discussed a variety of pragmatic topics—starting one’s own practice, being a woman in architecture, and professional networking. According to current WiD Co-Chair Ingrid Bengtson MArch ‘15, “Much of the enthusiasm in the room came from women who were happy to have a strong female role model changing the status quo in the field of architecture.” 

View a video of Gang’s full lecture here.