Architect Jeanne Gang believes the built environment can coexist with the natural one, a concept her buildings have proved both possible and enduring.
Jeanne Gang is an award-winning architect, known for her sustainable building techniques and her design of the 82-story Aqua Tower in Chicago.
Born in 1964 in Belvedere, Illinois, Gang studied at the University of Illinois and Harvard Graduate School of Design. She worked under influential architect Rem Koolhaus before founding her own company, Studio Gang, in 1997. The firm designed projects in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, St. Louis, and elsewhere. When it was completed in 2010, Gang’s Aqua Tower was the largest women-designed building in the world; it has since been surpassed by the 1,982-foot-tall St. Regis Chicago (2020), which she also designed.
Among her many awards, Gang won the prestigious Louis I. Khan Memorial Award in 2017 and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2011. She is a professor in practice at Harvard Graduate School of Design, and has also taught at Rice, Princeton, Columbia, and Yale universities.
In 2009, Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower took its place in the Chicago skyline. Among the more traditional buildings, it stood out with its undulating facade of balconies transforming residents who might usually be isolated into neighbors. The Aqua Tower’s design made Gang an architectural sensation, but for her, beauty wasn’t the building’s only purpose. She was interested in something more intimate: the communities it would help foster.
Jeanne Gang: That was an interesting case to observe, is like this building with the two sides at City Hyde Park, with one side full of balconies that connects to the outdoors and one side with more picture windows looking at the skyline, and in Chicago, they say that everyone loves to be looking at the skyline. As we saw how people moved into the building, immediately like the south side was rented out like on day one because it was just, people wanna have connections to each other.
Gang has made it her life’s work to address how the built environment can help shape our relationships to each other and to the world around us. She calls it actionable idealism, a holistic approach to urban design that she’s been championing for decades.
Gang: I really get excited when I see people thriving because there is something there for them, a building that’s for them. I wanna see people get back together, able to talk and reduce the divisions that we have in our society.
Jeanne Gang’s idealism and affinity for nature began to take shape very early in her life. As a child growing up in Belvedere, Illinois, she loved being outdoors, building ice castles and tree houses, drawing what she saw in nature. Gang’s father James, a civil engineer, and her mother Marge, a community organizer, instilled in Jeanne and her three sisters an interest in how things worked and a drive to spark change for good.
Gang: My mom was very involved in community so it was natural for me to do that and talk to people and learn about what they needed.
And as young Jeanne continued to explore habitats, built and natural, she became ever more curious about the different ways that people and animals lived within them. Gang recalls one family vacation to see cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park as another spark that ignited her interest in architecture. She would go on to study at Harvard, and before that the University of Illinois, where she remembers many of her teachers as aging hippies with ideas about the environment that had yet to hit the mainstream.
Gang: They taught about passive solar orientation and you know, how to use less energy. But then when I got out in practice, nothing like that was happening at all. So when I finally got my own practice started I brought that back in and it was right at a time when there was, you know this movement was starting to happen. So it fit in with my way of being in the world.
Much of what Gang later put into practice came from studying and traveling in Europe. In cities such as Zurich and Rotterdam she observed how buildings evolved over time.
Gang: Seeing just the way that cities reflect the culture of a group of people, a place, its climate.
In Europe, Gang also saw how many different minds came together early in the creation of a building. There she learned that each design benefits from a diverse community to bring it to fruition.
Gang: That was different than the way I had seen it being done in the States. When I started my own practice, I would always bring in engineers or, like many different types of experts on different things and trying to get those early collaborations and conversations that inform the design.
And so when Gang returned to the United States in 1997, she started her own architecture and urban design firm. Today, Studio Gang has offices in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Paris. And for projects large and small, her team brings together a diverse range of voices, expertise, and points of view; community leaders, artisans, ecologists, this with the goal of creating buildings that respond to the environments in which they’re located. And just like the structure she created as a child, Gang’s architectural designs continue to take cues from the natural world.
Gang: What nature does that I like, it’s ruthless about using the least amount of energy possible to do what it does. So it contorts and conforms and evolves to do the function the best way it can. There’s no extra.
Fast Company magazine has referred to Jeanne Gang’s practice as a go-to for environmentally conscious and architecturally adventurous design, having repeatedly demonstrated that creating aesthetically pleasing buildings might just be an important part of the answer to the sustainability question.
Gang: Architecture that people love and they wanna hang onto tends to be the stuff that lasts. And yeah, I mean of course our conception of beauty changes over time too, and it adjusts. I still think there’s something that is like that compels you by certain buildings or structures that makes people love them and want to keep them. The function and the aesthetic have to go hand in hand, like in nature. So it’s, you know, so usually if you do something that is really functional and has the right order to it, it has beauty.
But not all of Gang’s buildings are show stoppers. She started her career working in the neighborhoods of Chicago and since creating the Aqua Tower, her studio has balanced its work between large commercial projects and others with a more civic focus.
Gang: In doing this more and more, it became clear that, we really need to have a method for engaging with communities. And that’s something that we’ve developed at my practice with people that are better at it than me, but just how to elicit what’s desired.
Jeanne Gang believes the future of cities will depend on their ability to support people from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Studio Gang is at the forefront of this in Chicago with a project called Assemble Chicago, a carbon neutral, affordable high rise to be built in the city’s downtown loop.
Gang: And it’s really for essential workers that would be working in the loop. 100% of the homes are affordable and it has these community spaces within it in the base. And this is, you know, because if you just let the market do what it wants, you will end up having cities that are not socially equitable and you, you know, it should be for everyone.
And Studio Gang’s mission to help cultivate better communities through the buildings they create is ever-evolving. In 2019’s Solar Carve, an office tower at the edge of Manhattan between the High Line park and the Hudson River, the building profile follows the path of the sun in order to prevent blocking light or restricting views. The glass facade has patterning that appears decorative, but is actually designed to mitigate the warming effects of direct sunlight.
Gang: I think the first wave of architects tried to like step over the High Line to get views, you know, but imagine if everyone did that, the whole thing would be blocked.
AJC: The High Line would be a tunnel.
Gang: Right? That building was all about stepping out of the way. And that’s what gave it its sculptural shape, it’s really shaped by the views to allow the neighbors along the High Line to still have the views. To step back for daylight so it was really carved by the solar angles. And that means that, you know, sunlight is getting down to the common area, the shared space. The benefit of it, though, in the end, it’s like you have a building with the most fantastic views itself because it steps over to the west and it gets out of the way of the High Line.
And as the city of Chicago works to transform its riverfront into an accessible recreation area, the talents and vision of Studio Gang have been called upon once again. At Clark Park, Gang hopes her work will help different communities to connect to what she calls the city’s backyard, and work together to maintain it.
Gang: Making projects like the Boathouse in Chicago that invites people to the river, even if it’s not perfect, but that will help to start the sea change, which will be more and more people caring about it, being stewards of the river.
Jeanne Gang knows that what we build and how we build it can help create a more sociable, sustainable, and equitable world. It’s an idea that she began espousing early and the world is finally catching up, catching on.