On Her Precipice
Blooming ‘starchitect' Jeanne Gang thrives on sustainable design, craves construction, is mad for materials and builds community
Unlike many architects, Jeanne Gang, designer of Chicago's mesmerizing Aqua Tower, respects builders and lives for construction. Paul Treacy, the 87-story skyscraper's concrete superintendent, knows this well.
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Gang had a profound effect on Treacy during construction of her first tower, an innovative residential building that evokes a vertical landscape of rolling hills and ponds. And it is not only because the designer and the “super” bonded over means and methods for Aqua's 78 unique and undulating slab edges, which have extreme cantilevers of up to 12 ft. Gang also left a lasting impression with Treacy on the home front.
“My son Ryan is an architecture student at the University of Illinois-Chicago, thanks to Jeanne,” says Treacy, who works for James McHugh Construction Co., Chicago. “She inspired him.”
In 2008, when Aqua was up only 40 stories, Treacy—mildly distracted by his teenage son's lack of direction—asked Gang for words of wisdom. Her response was to invite Ryan to spend a day at Studio Gang Architects (SGA).
The gesture is part of the 47-year-old architect's style. “I thought Paul's son would get a better idea of what it was like to be an architect by spending a little time in the office. Plus, I think the world of Paul,” says Gang, who gained “starchitect” status last year when the 859-ft-tall Aqua, the world's fourth-tallest residential-hotel tower, opened.
For Treacy, Gang's gesture was above and beyond the call of duty. “She changed my son's life. She didn't have to do that,” he says. “That's really something.”
Her bent for building, which Gang calls a “love of concretizing objects,” is a cause of her forward motion. “Jeanne has succeeded not only because she's imaginative but because she knows how to build,” says Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic.
Her concretizing is infectious. “If you care about construction methods and you engage people in the design, you get something better,” says Weston Walker, an SGA senior designer. “All of her projects are embedded with an idea of how they [will] be made.”
Ron Klemencic, president of Aqua's structural engineer, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, Seattle, says, “She makes everyone around her better, and they get more invested in design. She listens and then draws things out of people, including me.”
Gang's late father, a civil engineer, nurtured her interest in building as well as science, nature, infrastructure and exploring. On family vacations, he would drive “way out of the way to see some bridge,” says Gang, the third of four daughters who grew up in Belvidere, Ill., 73 miles northwest of Chicago.
A self-proclaimed info-junkie, Gang says she gets a thrill from discovery. She likes to break and crush rocks, then study the results. Informal organizations, such as cities, and formal ones—such as crystals, shells, networks, neurons, and landscapes—are sources of fascination that find their way into her work.
Composer Harold Meltzer, a New York City native, was inspired by Aqua to write music. “I was mesmerized by the photos,” says Meltzer. The Avalon String Quartet played the premier performance of Meltzer's composition “Aqua” in Chicago on April 27.
Gang also credits her mother and grandmother, who often worked with fabrics, for her fascination with materials, which led her to the crafts. “I started connecting with tradespeople because our work explores materials and taking them in new directions,” says Gang. “Tradespeople know their materials best and always have great insights.”
Carrie Warner, an associate principal with local structural engineer Halvorson and Partners, who is working on SGA's Blue Wall Center in Greenville County, S.C., says, “Compared to other architects, Jeanne digs deeper into the idea of what can be done with materials, rethinking how we can use them.”
And dig she does. Her current obsession is dirt of different colors.
Gang first became aware of architecture when she saw ancient cliff dwellings carved into the sandstone mountainsides of Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park. She calls skylines “mountain ranges,” skyscrapers “mountains” and terraces “precipices.” She says any resemblance between the dwellings and Aqua's terraces, with their overhangs, is unintentional.
Friends and colleagues describe her as accessible, unassuming, flexible, innovative, cooperative, organized, pragmatic and fun. They also call her serious, gutsy, tenacious, driven, competitive, principled, demanding and opinionated. At home in the city or the country, she is public about her ideas and private about herself. Despite the many contradictions, Gang finds a way to live in peaceful coexistence with her traits while putting them to work in her profession.
Gang sees herself as an environmental steward. Concerned with a coming crush in human population concurrent with a predicted extinction of 20% of living species by 2028, she tries to minimize the impact of shelter, especially through small-footprint, high-density residential towers.
Her sustainable ways are rooted in her waste-not, want-not Midwestern values. As a child, she would spend hours drawing on the blank back sides of desk calendar pads from her father's office. She considered a career in studio art or engineering but decided on architecture because it combined the two.
Gang likens the architect to a cook, a prospector and a nomad. Like a sustainable cook preparing menus from seasonal, local food, the studio switched to expressed concrete after losing a masonry donation for the exterior of the SOS Children's Villages Lavezzorio Community Center in Chicago. Like a prospector, SGA found scrap metal from former steel plants nearby for columns for the Ford Calumet Environmental Center (as yet unbuilt), lined up slag and broken glass for terrazzo floor aggregate and reclaimed reinforcing steel for a filigree patio enclosure that prevents birds from crashing into windows. Like a nomad, SGA designed the local Lincoln Park Zoo South Pond pavilion with lightweight, prefabricated wood and fiberglass elements so that two workers could assemble the structure in one day, without using heavy equipment.
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