MDC 2011 Speakers: Our Conversation with Jeanne Gang, FAIA

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Studio Gang's Aqua Tower in Chicago - 2010 International Highrise Award Finalist of Deutsches Architekturmuseum

Amongst Jeanne Gang, FAIA’s, credits is the world’s highest skyscraper to be designed by a woman—Aqua Tower in Chicago. But if the typology is the most urban of forms, Gang and her collaborators at Studio Gang also frequently engage in the natural environment through such projects as the Ford Calumet Environmental Center.

The studio’s work is deceivingly beautiful: From the soft ripples that run Aqua Tower’s full height to a gently fractured façade designed for an in-process tower in India, to MoMA’s “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” initiative, they also deliver thoughtful, multivalent solutions for an increasingly stressed ecosystem.

Your father was an engineer, what swayed you to pursue a career as an architect?
Although, engineering was in my family, I loved buildings and spaces for people. From a very early age, I was designing and building little clubhouses and tree houses for my playmates.

Traveling made me realize how certain architecture served a culture’s history and, in some cases, could inspire people—I just found it really compelling. And, once I found it and started taking the courses and visiting the places with great architecture, I was really in love with it.

How did your time at Rem Koolhaas’ firm OMA impact your practice?
Looking back, the aspect of urban design that we do in our practice, the ability to look at bigger pieces of cities and to organize them and try and understand them, rearrange them—those are the things that we are working on today which I would not have found going on in U.S. practices at the time.

And the collaborative nature of the firm—not just OMA, but other European firms as well. Where the structural and mechanical engineers and landscape designers are involved earlier in the process—that’s the way that I’ve set up the studio here.

Ford Calumet Environmental Center took its material palette from salvaged and discarded materials in the Calumet industrial region

We’re speaking the same week as Time magazine has a cover ‘the End of Fish’. How can architects protect what remains of the natural environment and other species?
Well, one thing that we can do is understand how systems interact. Instead of seeing any project as a singular commission, [we have to remember] that the built environment is part of the larger ecology. When we take on a project at SGA, we think about which systems are affected, such as water, animals, or plant species. It is important to address conservation, but also to imagine how a project might support or improve an environmental condition. How is this one piece of the built environment able to have a bigger positive impact?

It’s important for architects, now more than ever, to understand some biology, some landscape, and the bigger systems that we’re operating in. We all have to expand beyond our traditional boundaries and comfort zones, and be more proactive about the inter- connectiveness.

For a client in India, Hyderabad Tellapur 02’s soft fissures create ventilation

The studio embedded measures that protect birds within the design of Aqua Tower.
We became aware of the problem of bird collisions with glass through research when we were doing a competition, way back in 2003. As someone who is tuned into the natural environment and sustainability, I was alarmed by the scale of the problem. Cities on waterways that birds use for migration are especially dangerous to them—New York, Chicago, and Toronto have a large number of birds passing through them on fly-ways. It’s one of those puzzles that is difficult yet interesting, and it seemed like a problem that architects could help solve.

We basically worked with ornithologists and glass manufacturers to try and pinpoint what the possible solutions could be.

What comes first in the studio: an intellectual idea of how to approach the site, conditions and program and then the design, or is a design that seems aesthetically appropriate adapted to answer to the intellectual or practical challenges you want to address.

“there are building concepts that are about material, concepts that are about the user… and concepts that are about pushing things further than we have before.”

We start with the issues of the project in mind, and we try and understand what the parameters are in order to lay out the research. But we also pursue our own ongoing interests—we might start exploring a material, because our work is concerned with how things are made. Does the building want to be wood, or does it make sense that it’s concrete? These attitudes can happen simultaneously—there are building concepts that are about material, concepts that are about the user and the function, and concepts that are about pushing things further than we have before.

With the pavilion for the Lincoln Park Zoo, the project was much more than the pavilion. It was about how to reinvent the pond so that it could become more sustainable—to become more than an aesthetic, picturesque pond.

Our whole approach to the pond—working together with our landscape architects and ecologists, a lot of professionals—was how to make it function as a habitat, improve its water quality and stormwater retention at the same time.

But, for the pavilion, I think the first thing was thinking about its materials. How could we do a bent-wood structure? How can we create something that uses smaller, micro-laminated wood? And that became the main design impetus.

Need extended education credits? Want to hear Gang in person? You can do both at the same time by attending the MDC. Register right here.

Check back next week for Part II, in which we ask Gang what building typology is the most important use of the studio’s time and why Studio Gang has embraced Twitter.

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