Studio Visit: Studio Gang Architects

John Hill | 01.14.2013
Little did I know when making plans to visit Chicago for a week last year that my late fall trip would be all about Studio Gang Architects. There was a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago to see Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects. Then I got a tour of the nearby Aqua tower, which houses apartments and a hotel in its 82 floors. The Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park was another recently completed project to see in person. Finally I headed to Studio Gang's offices in Wicker Park to chat with Jeanne Gang and get a tour of the office, a relatively empty space considering most of the firm's signature models were on display at the Art Institute.
Inside Studio Gang Architects exhibition view. Photo: Courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago
The last time I was in Chicago was 2007, when the Architecture and Design department at the Art Institute was housed in the distinctive yet awkward, horseshoe-shaped gallery adjacent to the grand staircase. With the 2009 completion of the Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing, the department moved into two large rectangular galleries, one overlooking the skylit atrium.
Inside Studio Gang Architects exhibition view. Photo: Courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago
For the Building exhibition (curated by Zoë Ryan and Karen Kice, and running until February 24, 2013), Studio Gang designed four large, rope-and-steel structures suspended from the ceiling; these inscribe smaller areas for looking at drawings, interacting with digital presentations, and just sitting down (a bonus in a museum the size of the Art Institute). Jeanne Gang would explain to me in her office later that the gallery's ceiling structure could not support great loads (apparently, the spaces were originally designed as painting galleries), so her design—carried out with structural engineer Thornton Tomasetti—tries to achieve as much as it can with as little weight as possible.
Inside Studio Gang Architects exhibition view. Photo: Courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago
The 13 projects on display are placed into four "Building" themes: Nature, Density, Community, and Performance. The drawings, renderings, photos, and Joseph Cornell-esque lightboxes are mounted on the wall like a timeline, leading visitors to the smaller second gallery, which is devoted to the fifth theme: Idea. It is here where the inspiration and process that is the core of Studio Gang's work comes to the fore. One table collects a few of the many materials they investigate. Another is devoted to the design of the exhibition itself. There is even a machine for making bricks.
Inside Studio Gang Architects exhibition view. Photo: Courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago
In this far gallery sits a round table with stools near a wall marked with "Archi-Salons." These events invite architects, educators, and writers to discuss broader themes within the space of the exhibition, ultimately bringing the public closer to ideas shaping architectural practice. Initially, Jeanne Gang proposed moving the whole office to the smaller gallery for the duration of the exhibition, giving visitors a literal glimpse into how an architecture firm works. Setting aside the practical difficulties of relocating a firm and trying to work under (even more) prying eyes, the idea had to be ditched because of some economic loopholes with the Art Institute. Neverthless this space effectively reveals what many architecture firms choose to keep hidden.
Inside Studio Gang Architects exhibition view. Photo: Courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago
Some of the best parts of Building are the lightboxes displaying process models alongside artifacts the studio has accumulated, such as the milkweed pods that inspired the form of the fiberglass domes for the pavilion of the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo. This juxtaposition of the natural against the designed brings the links between people and nature closer together, while also illustrating how natural forms can inspire in unexpected ways. The pavilion is a gem in Lincoln Park, but it is part of a larger ecological plan for the zoo's South Pond. Gang worked with a landscape architect, engineers, and other consultants to soften the pond's edges and make it an alluring habitat for birds and other species.
Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo. Photo: John Hill/World-Architects
Jeanne Gang is an architect known for her sensitivity to birds, a rarity among architects today. At least 100 million birds are estimated to die every year, in the United States alone, from striking glass buildings (upper estimates put that number close to 1 billion). The fact that architects play a large role in these fatalities influenced Gang's competition-winning design for the Ford Calument Environmental Center on Chicago's South Side, in which salvaged rebar acts as a screen around the building's glass walls. That 2004 design, which helped catapult Gang into the architectural spotlight, remains unbuilt to this day, but Gang told me she is optimistic for its realization as state and local politicians work toward defining a huge ecological reserve in the Calumet region.
Aqua Tower. Photo: John Hill/World-Architects
Aqua Tower, in Chicago's Lakeshore East development northeast of Millennium Park, is another example of Jeanne Gang's sensitivity to birds. While the building looks like a fairly generic glass tower from a distance, up close it is a rippling surface accentuated by the white undersides of the wraparound terraces. Birds approaching the building would not mistaken the glass walls for sky, given the visible areas of solid surfaces. 
Aqua Tower. Photo: John Hill/World-Architects
Of course, other considerations come into play in the design of Aqua Tower, such as views to Millennium Park and Lake Michigan, and creating a dense yet appealing alternative to suburban sprawl. In the process Studio Gang inadvertantly created an iconic building that has led to more research on tall buildings (top photo) and the occasional commission (a smaller tower in New York City's Meatpacking District). I was able to tour the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel, which occupies the tower's lower fifth. Travelers should definitely request one of the modern rooms with a balcony, to take advantage of Aqua's distinctive ripples and views.
Office of Studio Gang Architects. Photo: John Hill/World-Architects
On the contact page of Studio Gang's website is this sentence in a jumbo font: "The world is our studio, Chicago is our home." Beyond the idea that the work of Jeanne Gang's office extends outside of the proverbial "Second City," this quote rings true in other ways when visiting the office. Instead of being located in the Loop—Chicago's downtown or CBD (Central Business District)—Studio Gang occupies the top floor of a two-story building in Wicker Park, a popular, comparatively residential neighborhood. The office is precisely located at the confluence of Ashland, Milwaukee, and Divsion, a busy hub with a triangular open space visible from the second floor studio. It is a thriving yet modest location for Chicago's most popular and exportable practicing architect.
Office of Studio Gang Architects. Photo: John Hill/World-Architects
We talked for a while about a lot of things, but Gang was clearly focused on the Building exhibition at the Art Institute, which I had visited that morning. A couple weeks earlier she had participated in a salon at the exhibition moderated by MAS Context editor Iker Gil; she was visibly proud of the way the public interacted with the assembled panelists. The Archi-Salons, mentioned earlier, actually parallel some informal chats that have been held in Studio Gang's offices, geared to similar big-picture conversations that use a particular project as a starting point. 
Office of Studio Gang Architects. Photo: John Hill/World-Architects
These conversations point to a shift in Chicago's intellectual architecture climate away from the discussions that have long been centered around the city's unofficial dean, 82-year-old Stanley Tigerman. In the catalog to Building, Jeanne Gang hints at forming a non-profit or university-embedded institute to facilitate discussions and their sharing through various media. She acknowledges that the architectural climate in Chicago is getting better, but she wants less of architects talking with architects. The Archi-Salons are certainly a step in that direction.
Solar Carve Tower. Visualization: Studio Gang Architects
A few days after my visit Gang was scheduled to fly to New York City for a Community Board meeting on the Solar Carve Tower, a recently unveiled office building overlooking the High Line. Unlike an addition to the nearby Chelsea Market that plops extra floors directly over the park, the Solar Carve Tower appopriately carves its mass to allow more sunlight to penetrate the park than if it were an as-of-right rectangular block. A faceted glass wall facing the park also scatters reflected sunlight, such that plant damage à la Museum Tower in Dallas would not happen.
Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. Visualization: Studio Gang Architects
Another new project that Gang was noticeably proud of is the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, a meeting space for Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Not only is it one of the 13 projects in the Building exhibition, an image of its distinctive, wood-cut walls serves as a backdrop for the reception desk (first office photo above). The appropriate term for the curving exterior walls is actually "wood masonry," a traditional technique in the area but one that has not yet been used in a contemporary institutional building. The Y-shaped plan looks out at three outdoor areas and defines smaller exterior spaces adjacent to the building's concave walls. 
Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. Visualization: Studio Gang Architects
Focused on human rights and social justice, the Arcus Center encapsulates Jeanne Gang's desire to meld ideas about materials and building onto socially responsibility programs. Developer-driven buildings like Aqua Tower and Solar Carve Tower may grab the headlines, but the Arcus Center, Nature Boardwalk, Ford Calument Center, and related projects are at the core of Studio Gang's architectural ideals. They tap into nature for inspiration and ultimately redefine how buildings relate to nature, by questioning just what architecture should be doing in the 21st century.

John Hill
"Founded by Jeanne Gang, FAIA, in 1997, Studio Gang is an international practice whose work confronts pressing contemporary issues. Conceived as a collective of architects, designers, and thinkers, the studio acts as a lab for testing ideas on varying scales: from cities to environments to individual buildings’ unique material properties. The firm’s provocative and alluring architecture is exemplified by such recent projects as the Aqua Tower (the 2009 Emporis Skyscraper of the Year), Columbia College Chicago’s Media Production Center (a cutting-edge film production and teaching facility), and the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo (an educational pavilion and landscape that is quickly becoming a new Chicago landmark).

"The work of Studio Gang has received national and international recognition and has been published and exhibited widely, most notably at the International Venice Biennale, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Smithsonian Institution’s National Building Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Reveal, Jeanne Gang’s first volume on the firm’s work and working process, was released from Princeton Architectural Press in 2011." (source)

"Visionary architect and MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang is the founder and principal of Studio Gang Architects, a Chicago-based collective of architects, designers, and thinkers. Driven by curiosity, intelligence, and radical creativity, Jeanne has produced some of today’s most innovative and award-winning architecture.

"Jeanne seeks to answer questions that lie locally (site, culture, people) and resound globally (density, climate, sustainability) through her architecture. Her designs are rooted in both architectural form and idea-driven content to make a compelling whole, and she often arrives at design solutions through investigations and collaborations across disciplines.

"A distinguished graduate of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, she has taught at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and IIT, where her studios have focused on cities, ecologies, materials, and technologies." (source)