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Jeanne Gang: Before Aqua - an early portrait.





 -by Lynn Becker

[September 21, 2011] - From 2004, a look at Studio/Gang architect Jeanne Gang's beginnings, development and outlook, and the initial projects that launched her career and put in her position to design Aqua, the 82-story Chicago residential tower that was the largest project ever won by a female architect. Jeanne Gang has just won one of only twenty-two 2011 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, which come with a cash prize of $500,000 over five years.



Architect Jeanne Gang of Studio/Gang Architects

“I once read where Marilyn Monroe said she could go out on the street and wear sweats and no one would ever recognize her.  She could change her identify completely, and she wanted to play with that. ” 

“I was always fascinated with how pieces came together.”

“Whenever we went to see her, she brought out this big tin of a bazillion different type of buttons.  It would keep me busy for hours, looking at all the different type of buttons.” Architect Jeanne Gang is talking about childhood visits to her grandmother, an avid seamstress who made hundreds of quilts.. “She had a story about each piece of the fabric - who gave it to her, what shirt of pair of pants it came from.” 

“I was always fascinated with how pieces come together,” says Gang.  “I’m drawn to things that involve patterns, construction systems that are pattern-oriented.”   Titanium shingles like the scales of a dragon’s skin, a curtain made of transparent marble, and a nature center built like a nest are examples of the kind of creativity and innovation that are starting build the young Chicago architect an international reputation.

Gang, 40, was raised in Belvidere, Illinois, the third of four girls.  “I was the tomboy type,” she recalls.  Her father was civil engineer for Boone county, her mother a librarian and a seamstress.  Of her father’s influence, Gang recalls, “I was his little buddy.  We’d get up super-early and go driving looking at roads and bridges.  When we went to Florida, we’d go all the way to Key West so we could go over the super-long bridge.”

Gang’s earliest memory of built environment may have come from a movie.  “When I was really little I was into animals – I still am.  My favorite movie was Dr. Doolittle.”  She was particularly taken by the scenes in which the doctor and his cohorts sail home inside a Giant Pink Sea-Snail.  “It’s a total space, a kind of space that you’ve never seen before- as architecture,” she says.  “That is a huge strong memory.”

Another key influence was a family trip to Mesa Verde, in Colorado, where 800 years ago the Pueblo Indians built their stone dwellings directly into the alcoves of the canyon walls.  “You don’t even see it’s there,” says Gang.  “You come over this top of the mesa and it reveals itself - the total integration of the landscape and this dwelling.  God, it’s so beautiful.  That quality of drop-dead gorgeous, the surprise, the seduction of it – that floored me as a kid.  I was like, ‘Whoa!’”

The young Gang had toyed with being a vet, and then an engineer. “I was taking architecture classes in high school, but I liked physics better.”  It was a trip to Europe, encountering cathedrals like Notre Dame and Chartres, at the time she was studying at the U of I, that began to set her ultimate focus.  “Just seeing so much cool architecture - mostly the Gothic stuff.  Everybody at that time was totally into Renaissance architecture, but I really liked Gothic.  I like the spatial qualities.  It was just the awe-inspiring thing. When I started to look at architecture more seriously,” says Gang, “There was no going back”

Gang got a Rotary scholarship and went to study at the prestigious Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, ETH, in Zurich.  “It’s like IIT,” says Gang, “in that it’s material-based, and construction based.”  While there, she was accepted in Harvard University Graduate School of Design.  “The person I had who was really influential was Homa Farjadi, a woman architect who’s Persian, originally. She now practices in London.  We were talking about issues of identity and feminist theory, and tried to play that out in terms of how does it work in architecture.”

Working with Rem Koolhaas
Gang was about to encounter the greatest influence in her work, Rem Koolhaas, architect of the new McCormick Student Center at IIT, who was also teaching at Harvard  “I never actually had Rem as my studio critic, but he was there when I was there, too. When I first graduated, I was going to do a house on my own for somebody and that fell through.  The next thing in line was going to go work for somebody I really respect.”  

For many years, Koolhaas was better known as a critic and polemicist than an architect, but by 1993, the volume of work at his firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), was beginning to explode, with a series of new projects that included a massive convention center in Lille, France.  Even then, however, getting a job interview required a lot more than just sending in a resume.

“That doesn’t work with those offices somehow,” recalls husband and Studio Gang colleague Mark Schendel, who had joined Koolhaas in 1988.  “You have to go.  You have to show up.”  Although Koolhaas remembered her from Harvard, “I had to force my way to get the time to talk to him.  He was asking me, what do you think about this building, or what do you think about that issue?  He’s like a sponge.  He saw a fit with me on this project for a railroad station in the Hague.  I had showed him my thesis- a park and parking that used water to filter river water. 

. . . bare concrete floor, bare concrete columns, bare concrete ceiling and models everywhere.

Her first impression of Koolhaas was of  “someone who’s completely articulate and willing to say things about the profession that other people were not willing to say at the time.  A lot of the other European architects, the Swiss and Spanish architects, were so into these subtleties and refinements, and this language that only architects understand.  He was somewhere totally different.  There’s so much building that goes on that no architect is involved with.  He was interested in getting that back.”  Koolhaas was interested in building types like shopping centers and hotels that are becoming increasingly central to modern life even as the architectural thinking behind them has grown frail and generic.  “When he was first starting out as an architect,” says Gang, “he went around in the U.S. and interviewed all these big architecture firms, and he was really interested with Portman.”  (John Portman, father of the big hotel atriums that became the centerpieces of so many big-city Hyatts.)

“They were busy,” says Gang of OMA in 1993  “There weren’t enough people to do all of it.  They needed somebody.”  Koolhaas put her to work on designing a plaza for the Hague station. 

“It was a weird experience,” Gang says of her first day on the job. “The office was in three different spots across this canal.” The one Gang was assigned to "was the most bare building you’ve ever seen, nothing in it.  Took this rickety elevator up to the studios, which were just bare concrete floor, bare concrete columns, bare concrete ceiling and models everywhere. It was a really interesting international environment  -people from Germany and Japan, a guy from South America.  Mostly young.  From that moment sitting down it was diving in and being thrown in - just figure this out, let’s look at this in model.” 

After the Hague project stalled (it’s still unbuilt today), Gang was moved over to working on the Grand Palais at Lille, a massive convention center that was Koolhaas’s megadevelopment calling card.  She also worked on a house in Bordeaux for a wealthy newspaper publisher.  After the commission was awarded, the client was paralyzed in an auto crash.  “He didn’t really want to be one level,” remembers Gang.  “He had expressed to Rem he really wanted to get views of Bordeaux.”  The solution was to make the entire center room an elevator, a platform, complete with bookshelves at one end, that rose and lowered to fall into plane with the levels of the house.

“Probably Rem was looking out the window,” says Gang in trying to trace the origin of the idea.  “The OMA office was located right on this river, and every day these big
container ships would come by.  There’s a cab up above the containers, and when they get to the bridge, it lowers down.  It’s one hydraulic cylinder holding this big cab."  Gang says none of the conventional elevator companies seemed interested in the concept of the house in Bordeaux. “We wound up going to those guys in Holland who made those cabs.”

The project wasn’t completed until 1998, and by then, Gang and Schendel were both long gone.  “We built more OMA projects than any other employee he’s had,” says Schendel.  “No one stays long enough to do two.”  The intensity of the projects burn people out. 80-hour workweeks are the norm.

First Project: containerpark

In 1994, working outside of OMA for a project in Rotterdam’s Kunstpark,  Gang and Schendel again drew on shipping technology but at the opposite end of the economic spectrum.  With a bare-bones budget of under $20,000, they worked with artists Joep van Lieshout and Klaar van der Lippe, to created what was called a containerpark.

 “They wanted a bar and a place to store rollerblades for this park, but it was in kind of a rough area, so they wanted to be able to close it down.  Our idea was to go shopping for shipping containers,” those same standardized steel 9x9x20 foot boxes they had seen on the freighters in Rotterdam.  “We found these Russian ones, which had doors on both sides.  We could open the doors all day.  We fixed them, cleaned them out, painted them, and made these bars.”  During the winter months, the containers could be picked up and stored away.  The client got more than their money’s worth.  “It was supposed to be for only one year,” says Gang, “ and I think it lasted about five.”  Flash-forward to today, when the same type of containers is being used by forward-looking architects like Fox & Fowle to create low-cost housing.

The pair then split up. Schendel went to Vienna. Gang returned to Chicago, and wound up working at Booth/Hansen and Associates.  In the brief period she was there, Gang worked on a project for Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills and a house in Telluride.

Bengt Sjostrom Starlight Theatre, Rockford

In 1997, she would become part of a new firm, Studio Gang/O’Donnell, partnered with architect  Kathy O’Donnell.  “Kathy I met through her husband Andrew, who I worked with at Booth/Hansen.  I had started out off on my own.  She was at SOM (Skidmore-Owings-Merrill.)  She had started on her own.  We wanted to go for some bigger work, and we got together.  One of the first jobs that we applied for was to be the architect of record for Rem (at the IIT Student Center), and Mark was going to join us for that.” They were too new and untried to get the Koolhaas job (although when  the project finally broke ground after long delays, Schendel was enlisted by Koolhaas’s as his on-site architect.)  What they did get was what could be said to be Gang’s breakthrough commission, the Bengt Sjostrom Starlight Theatre at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Illinois.

In 2001, the seating was nearly doubled, to accommodate 1,050 people.  An 18 foot-high structure, added to house restrooms and ticket booths, became a striking “starwall”, where the curving concrete is punctured with a series of round windows, in different sizes, that form a “constellation” when they’re backlit at night. 

“We were trying to find a way to have a donor wall without putting names all over the building. They have a star and then there’s a key” – a kind of registry that lets you know which star belongs to whom.  The porthole windows had previously been used at Lille.  “It’s in a very hidden place,” says Gang.  “It was a kind of a test.  That’s where we first did something with punching holes into the concrete.” The round holes also required a lighter wall to support them.  The corners around square holes create more stress.

A copper-clad fly tower was added in 2002 to support scenery, and provide a full proscenium.  Curtains were replaced with translucent sliding doors like you’d find on an airplane hanger.  Last summer, Gang added the crowning element, a roof that “opens like a helix.”  It consists of six stainless-steel, Douglas-fir inlay panels which overlap at the edges to form a tight seal.  The triangular panels, 15 tons each and pre-fabricated on site, all branch off of a central column that acts as a pivot.  As the cap of the column rotates, the individual panels slowly open in sequence, like the petals of a flower, to reveal the night sky and its stars.  (If you sit directly underneath the center of the roof, the sky itself looks like a six-pointed star demarcated by the open panels.) In 2002, four tour buses were booked for trips to the theatre.  In 2003, the number had jumped to 300.

Chicago Visitor's Center Competition

As the theatre was being built, there were the usual unsuccessful competitions.  One in 2000, to build a solar wall on a government building in Washington, D.C., fell by the wayside as the Bush administration took power.  A second in 2001 was for a visitor’s center on Randolph across the street from the Cultural Center, where solar cells stretched across the façade in a thin structural web that was as spangly as a disco dress, the metallic blue cells shimmering in the sun as the fabric shifted in the wind, making the building an easy find for even the most myopic of tourists.  The idea was to connect to a fountain in Millennium Park, its waters rising and falling as according to much energy was being generated.  Gang didn’t win.  Three years later, there’s still no visitor center on the site, but you can see a mockup of the cell fabric at the Art Institute’s Unbuilt Chicago exhibit.

Along this period, Gang and O’Donnell were getting ready to split up.  Gang is guarded in describing the breakup.  She says that before the firm was founded, “We didn’t know each other much.  We did a couple of nice things together, and it was just time to go our separate ways.”

Today, Studio Gang operates above a Payless shoe store, on the top floor of a two-story commercial building at Milwaukee and Division.  It’s a large, open, loft-like space. Big windows, lots of light, models everywhere, shelves crammed with books, renderings and studies pasted to the wall, checklists of programmatic elements on chalkboards.  There’s a small, central outdoor courtyard, which streams light through shelves of rainbow-colored Plexiglass vitrines that were used for Aerospace Design: The Art of Engineering an exhibition that Gang designed for the Art Institute.  Along an inner wall, left over from a previous tenant, there’s a Diego Rivera styled mural.

The Marble Curtain

Last year, the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. mounted Masonry Variations, an exhibition exploring using both traditional and modern building materials in innovative ways.  Stanley Tigerman was curator of the exhibit, and he picked Gang to be one of the four participants.  “She’s good,” he says in explaining the choice.  “It’s that simple.  She’s talented, she’s very intelligent and she’s real Chicago, which means it’s about structure and construction.  It’s not about just the arbitrariness of design.”

The materials in the exhibition were stone, brick, terrazzo, and AAC, a form of concrete made lighter by being injected with air.  Each material was assigned a team composed of an architect and a craftsmen who would have in-depth of traditional materials that most modern architects lack.  In Gang’s case, she was paired with Matthew Stokes Redabaugh, a master stonemason with the International Masonry Institute. 

The building had amazing brick vaults. If we could hang it from the ceiling somehow, that could almost take the load off the floor. So the whole project became about how to hang this stone . . .

“When Stanley Tigerman told me our material was going to be stone, I was really disappointed.  I really wanted that high-tech AAC material.”  Tigerman, however, was unrelenting, and Gang was soon confronted with the limitations of the National Building Museum itself, built in the 1880’s.  “When we toured the gallery,” she recalls, “we found the floor loads could only take 60 pounds per square foot, equivalent to the visitors who are coming in to the gallery.  It was immediately apparent that there was not going to be this heavy stone thing sitting on the floor.”

“I looked up, and there’s a vault.  That’s going to be strong.   The building had amazing brick vaults in it.  If we could hang it from the ceiling somehow, that could take almost all the load off the floor.  So the whole project became about how to hang this stone -to get it off the floor”

Stone works best in compression, big blocks of it piled up one atop another. Hanging stone puts it in tension, the forces pulling at it laterally.  This is just not done.  When you see a building faced in stone, it’s not just hanging there – each individual piece is supported by its own brackets.

“Luckily we had the access to the IIT Materials lab,” says Gang, although “the professor said, ‘you guy’s are nuts.’”  The lab had huge binders of samples of all types of stones, as well as spec sheets that described all of a particular stone’s properties.  Strength in tension was not measured

Eventually, the team decided on marble as the best stone for the job.  “Masons know how stone is going to perform by thumping the stone,” says Gang.  “If it rings, it means that the materials inside the stone are very homogenous and fluid, and if it’s a dead sound, that usually means there’s cracks. Marble is more fluid than granite, which has little crystals in it” that translate into breakable fault lines.  The initial bet was that a piece of stone would be unlikely to bear more than 250 pounds before it breaks, but the piece used in the first test didn’t break until it hit 1,750. 

“Spectacular,” is how Tigerman describes the final result - a stunning hanging curtain made of super thin translucent marble, cut by a water jet into 619 pieces that interlocked like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.  Hanging from the ceiling via a series of thin metal brackets, it tapered out like the foot of a snail as it made its way to the floor.  Lit from behind, marble that would normally have a fairly uniform appearance was revealed to possess a richly varied palette of colors and textures.  The entire structure weighed only 1,500 pounds.  Although the curtain was entirely self-supporting, a thin, glue-like backing was applied to protect it from progressive failure should a single element fail.  In the nearly seven months that the piece was on the display, the only casualty was a hairline fracture on a single piece along the bottom.  In March, Gang’s installation won the $10,000 Grand Prize in the 2004 PRISM Stone in Architecture Awards.

The Chinese American Service League

This month, Gang’s new building for the Chinese American Service League will be formally dedicated.  The project was the result of a competition held in 1997.  “Kathy and I started on this and went through the painful programming process,” says Gang, “which was going around and interviewing all the people and finding what they needed.  Then there were times that it went on hold.” Ground was broken only last year.  The 38,000 square foot building wound up with a very tight construction budget of about $5,600,000.  It stands at the edge where Chinatown meets the industrial landscape of the rail yards, in the shadow of the two soaring erector-set towers of a giant lift bridge.  “We originally had our entry on the corner,” says Gang, “The Feng Shui master that worked with us in the beginning thought that was very bad vibes. We needed to move down the entry so it wouldn’t be in direct view of that lift bridge.” 

The CASL was founded in 1978 by Esther Wong and Bernarda Lo (Bernie) Wong.  “They had one office with a desk and telephone,” says Gang.  “They started that way and just built it up over years.  Today, CASL serves over 15,000 clients each year, and Gang’s building had to provide a home that could consolidate the wide range of programs and activities that were previously housing in a number of separate locations. 

“The titanium changes so much.  It is constantly changing color.”

The front façade is dominated by a large traditional ladder-pattern lattice that functions as a sunscreen.  “This is actually a façade facing southwest,” says Gang,  “when you screen to the west, you need to go vertical, because as the sun’s setting it will be low, coming in horizontally, so that vertical blocks it that way.  It’s also a balcony.  As you’re shading to the south, you need to have an overhang.”  The screens are a good efficient in blocking solar gain than indoor blinds or curtains, reducing the amount of air conditioning required.

The showstopper is CASL’s big party room.  “They have dance classes, ballroom dance.  Ping-pong,” says Gang.  “You don’t want to take the elderly in the elevator, up and down, so we decided to put this big room on the second floor, and that was not traditionally done.  It relates to that idea where, like in Logan Square, you look up from the street and see these really beautiful ballrooms.”  The room has maple floors, set off by the vibrant red of one large side wall.  There are mirrors for the dancing students.  The room opens onto the balcony that’s part of the southwest window wall.  The light fixtures near the ceiling are shaped like giant donuts.  “We wanted to have the lighting in here be a little bit softer,” says Gang.  “We were trying to find a way to make some of it reflect up, and to also get the downlight.  There wasn’t a fixture that we could find that could do it on that scale, so Mark came up with the solution to use an inflated inner tube to use for the formwork and then it’s fibre laid up on top of the inner tube,” which was deflated and removed once they were done.

Gang also designed a special “cubbie” wall for the daycare center.  “There’s a little niche where kids can go and put their shoes on.  One of the things that we learned was that kids really like corners,  and when you’re teaching daycare, sometimes peoples sets things up, like a house of blocks, and they want to leave it there for a couple days, so you need corners and niches and so we tried to incorporate that in these spaces.”

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the building is its skin. Like Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilboa, it’s made of titanium, fashioned into shingles.  “It’s more expensive,” admits Gang, “but it’s very low maintenance and long lasting.  There’s a brushed finish, and a satin finish.  The titanium changes so much.  It is constantly changing color.  If you come here at different times they phase in and out.  The façade will get darker and then will get lighter.”

The shingles evoke the texture of a dragon’s skin, but Gang bristles at the idea that the metaphor – like the star wall in Rockford – veer on kitsch.  “It’s about giving somebody something to identify the building with – it’s the building with the dragon skin.” The concept is like a bonus – it’s probably won’t be noticed at first by most people, but will give an added dimension when they catch on.

“Oooh!” exclaims Gang as she steps out onto the building’s balcony and finds a dead bird, killed when it flew straight into the window.   “That’s a problem,” she says, visibly perturbed.  Gang has become an expert on bird collisions with buildings, and the fact that her screen failed to completely divert birds away from the glass is clearly a disappointment. 

Ford Calumet Environmental Center Competition

She’s about to be able to put her increased understanding of the issue into direct use.  On April 22nd, Gang’s entry beat out 108 others in a design competition for a new $6,600,000 Ford Calumet Environmental Center.  The site on the far south side is deep in the city’s industrial heartland.  Ford’s Torrance Avenue plant is there, as are steel mills, scrap yards, landfills, and the city’s last operating sawmill.  Yet the area also includes ecologically rich wetlands and woodlands.  It’s directly on the flight path of many migratory birds, and inhabited or visited by several birds on the state’s endangered list.  762 species of plant life are represented.

Gang draws on the idea of the nest for her building, and specifically of a turkey nest “a bird that takes both natural and the manmade to create their nests . . . the method they use, which is using the abundant and the nearby discarded material.  I remembered losing a whole night of sleep, thinking of how to make this more about reuse.  We started looking for those materials in the Calumet area, and it was a fascinating thing, because there were so many places where you could get structural members and recycled steel and there was already some slag,” a byproduct of steel production.

“We were very conscious of all the openings,” says Gang, “so we could prevent these bird strikes with glass  There’s only one guy who researched it fully,” says Gang, referring to professor Daniel Klem.    “He put birds into cages with different surfaces and glass, and he found you could either put something in front of the glass, like a screen, or you could tilt the glass downward so it reflects the ground.” Along the building’s south wall, Gang tilts the glass outward, which also reduces solar heat gain.  A wire, basket-like mesh goes around the building, probably to be fabricated out of rebar, to eliminate bird strikes.

Salvaged steel from the area will make up the building’s supporting columns, and Gang will even retain the names of the mills in which they were made, etched into the surface.  Each column will actually be a cluster of steel beams, splaying out as they rise to support the roof like the fingers of a waiter carrying a large tray. “The reclaimed steel columns are bundled together like twigs and put into the ground as piles,” says Gang,  “so they’re also the foundation, as well.  That allows us to get all the lateral bracing that we need, but at the same is a kind of visual connection to the history of Calumet as a steel producer.”

The building also includes a number of systems that will help in its goal for qualifying for a Platinum LEED rating, the highest designation for “green”, sustainable buildings.  The sites wet clay soil “is also a very good soil type to use for earth systems.  We’re doing earth tubes and geothermal heat pumps, and because the soil is wet, it’s conductive.”  The earth tubes, which maintain a constant temperature around 55 degrees, snake around the parking lot to develop length and volume, which vents into the building to cool in summer, and warm in winter.  There’s also a biomass boiler, to be fueled with trees being culled from the site, clippings from road crews, and waste wood chips from the lumber mill.  Gangs hopes the boiler will not only be able to feed heated steam to coils in the floor slab in winter, but help produce enough energy to both power the building and send a surplus into the city’s power grid.

For now, Gang is also a finalist for a 9/11 memorial in Hoboken, New Jersey.  “We were just selected to represent the U.S.A. in the Venice Biennale in September.  They’re giving each architecture office a different building type, a typical American building type to explore, to re-examine.  They gave us the stadium.”  Gang will also be one of participants for the Art Institute’s Chicago Architecture: Ten Visions, scheduled to open this coming December.

Marilyn Monroe and the issue of Identity

Trying to describe how she thinks about architecture, Gang mentions that “the issue of

“When we make form, we’re thinking about how can we make the identity fluctuate. It doesn’t have to be one thing all the time.“ 

identity is interesting to me because it's how something reads.  It has to do with feminist thought, where a fluctuating, changing identity is something that is very against the singular or the kind of perception of there’s one, there’s a oneness.  Not gender, but in the philosophical framework of feminism, which is looking at things from these perimeter positions, not the center of power position, but from this condition where you’re on the margins.  And so you have a different way of looking at things.  When we make form, we’re thinking about how can we make the identity fluctuate. It doesn’t have to be one thing all the time.  I once read where Marilyn Monroe said she could go out on the street and wear sweats and no one would ever recognize her.  She could change her identify completely, and she wanted to play with that.  That is very, very frightening to certain aspects of society -this idea of change.“





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© 2004-2011 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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