Blueprint innovation: 16 interviews with international architects

Jeanne Gang

Jeanne Gang. All Images Courtesy Studio GangJeanne Gang. Image Courtesy Studio Gang

Jeanne Gang is the founder and principal of Chicago-based Studio Gang, known in particular for its sustainable design. Founded in 1997, its projects span from the Starlight Theater in Rockford, Illinois, with its opening roof petals, to the Aqua Tower (2009), a Chicago skyline icon and the first bird-friendly skyscraper. Recent works include the Writers Theatre, and the Gilder Center for Science and Education at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, currently in progress.

For me, innovation is pushing beyond what has already been done - big or small, in any medium - information, technology, software. It’s the part of the practice I love most, although I prefer the word ‘discovery’ to innovation. Even if it’s a small discovery about a project or a city or a new way to use a material, that’s exactly the thing that drives me.

Wooden pavilion designed for Lincoln Park Zoo, ChicagoWooden pavilion designed for Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago. Image Courtesy Studio Gang

We begin every project with a significant research and discovery phase, pulling together as much knowledge and data about a subject as we can, like a sponge, even if it may at first seem tangential to the project - texts, typological precedents, historical information, climate data... It’s crucial to talk to the people who might use and experience our work, and one of the things we’ve really advanced in our practice is how to engage the public in the design process.

Architects don’t always like to open themselves up to public engagement, but I really like it. Architects should be open to the fact that we might not have all the answers. We work in all kinds of building types - from high-rises to community centres, masterplans to landscape interventions - so identifying those areas that are ripe for innovation is very important.

With the Aqua Tower, for example, we knew the structure would be concrete, so we looked for areas other than materiality where we could be innovative. We identified an opportunity to bring the sense of community and relationships to the outdoors that exist more commonly in structures that are closer to the ground. We were able to achieve these wonderfully social spaces on the building’s facade all the way up to the 82nd floor.

For our recently completed City Hyde Park (a 14-storey apartment block, also in Chicago), we were able to push the balcony as social space even further, implementing a balcony system that is thermally broken from the interior. The facade is structural, and the balconies are both created and supported by a vertical ‘stem’ that brings loads straight to the ground, allowing the slabs between inside and outside to be thermally broken, resulting in energy savings and increased comfort on the interior. This technical innovation also results in a beautifully three-dimensional quality to the building.

Innovations in digital technology and sustainability are both exciting, and I think necessary to bring together. We need to find ways to make our buildings more responsive to climate and to the needs of people. It’s not just about sustainability, it’s about social connectivity. I want to help our species survive. We can no longer think about architecture as separate from its environment. I like to think about architecture through the model of ecology, as the relation between organisms and their environments. Architecture is a social project. We need each other; we need biodiversity.

City Hyde Park apartments development in Chicago
City Hyde Park apartments development in Chicago. Image Courtesy Studio Gang

I’m really proud of the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo [Chicago]. Once a concrete-lined pond, it’s now a thriving ecosystem in the most urban part of the city. It functions almost like a zoo without cages, with many species of animals returning to their native habitat and voluntarily displaying themselves. It also functions as necessary storm-water infrastructure, helping to stop flooding, and offers flexible public space for activities and education.

We were originally asked to design the pavilion, but when we saw the potential of the site, we pushed ourselves to find a way to improve the entire landscape. The pavilion itself innovates, with its prefabricated double-bentwood members and fibreglass shell. It has become this icon for the city - it was the city’s number one wedding destination, and I’ve even seen it on a wine bottle label!

We’ve been consciously building up an urban design practice within the studio. I’m particularly interested in the North American city, which is characterised by a very fast expanding geographical footprint, but population growth is not necessarily keeping up with it. At the same time you have vacancy and decline in the inner city. There’s something very out of balance. So I’ve dedicated more of my practice to looking at urban issues and trying to address them through design. HW

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