Jeanne Gang: Transforming cities through environmental sustainability and community connection

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“It’s impossible to replicate nature—it’s too good,” Jeanne Gang says. “It’s about trying to find that space where it’s art.”

Dolphin Bay, at the Texas State Aquarium, in Corpus Christi, is a twelve-foot-deep, pale-blue pool with a concrete bottom. It is home to Kai and Shadow, two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins the color of storm clouds. Twice a day, they perform in a show that is meant to inspire visitors to “help protect our planet,” the m.c. tells the audience. For the promise of dead fish, the dolphins ferry rubber ducks, leap and twirl, and wave and bow to the beats of Katy Perry. At the beginning of the show and again toward the end, Kai and Shadow rise on cue to flap their pectoral fins for their corporate sponsor, Whataburger.

On a Sunday in March, Jeanne Gang sat in the bleachers and looked out onto the bay that flows next to the aquarium. A pod of dolphins was surfacing among the waves, though most of the audience seemed not to notice. The juxtaposition of captive and wild transfixed Gang. “Jump!” she urged Kai and Shadow after the show, half in jest. Gang, who is fifty, has striking blue-gray eyes, brown curls, and a casual air. She is best known for designing Aqua, a tower in Chicago, which was completed in 2010. To maximize views and shade, she unevenly distended the concrete balconies on each floor, creating a rippling surface that suggests a natural topography—hills, valleys, pools—rising into the air. At eight hundred and fifty-nine feet, it is the tallest structure ever designed by a female-led firm.

Studio Gang, Eleanor Boathouse

Studio Gang, Eleanor Boathouse

Design awards, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and international acclaim followed the building’s construction. More tower commissions did not, in part because of the global recession. Instead, Gang took her practice deeper into an area of long-standing interest: the relationship between nature and culture. Last year, the National Aquarium, in Baltimore, asked her to help express, through design, a signal change in its mission. It wanted to move from being an aquarium that dabbled in conservation to being a conservation organization that has an aquarium. And, at a time of growing public unease about keeping cetaceans in captivity, it was contemplating something unprecedented: moving its eight dolphins to a sanctuary.

For months, Gang read up on the cognitive and social capabilities of dolphins. At Rice University, in Houston, where she was teaching for a semester, she asked her class to design dolphin sanctuaries. On the weekend of the dolphin show, she had brought eleven students to the Gulf Coast to do research. She was also conducting research of her own. The day before the show, the group drove to Port Aransas, Texas, and boarded a thirty-six-foot catamaran called the Kohootz. As the boat headed out into the Corpus Christi ship channel, Gang and a few students climbed to the top deck. The air teemed with birds: Gang pointed to a brown pelican flying by, then to a colony of white ones resting on an island shore. But the sea, the least architected space on the planet, stretched blankly before her. Nothing hinted at the life beneath the waves until a bulletin came over the loudspeaker: “There’s some dolphins over there.”

“Oh!” Gang exclaimed. It was her first glimpse of dolphins in the wild, although wild was a relative term. The dolphins frolicked near a built-up shoreline and played in surf churned up by a giant barge. Even the Jimmy Buffett blasting through the boat’s speakers was an attempt to “speak” to the cetaceans, which, the boat’s captains believe, now recognize the steel drums and sax notes reverberating through its aluminum frame. “I’m amazed they coexist with all this,” Gang told her students.

For the next hour, Gang watched dolphins surface and then dive back into the water. She and her students cooed over a chocolate-brown newborn small enough to slip through a pair of hands. Too young to glide, it instead popped up, then down. “I’m so glad we saw the wild dolphins first,” she said after the Dolphin Bay show. “The students on the boat were making all these sounds: ‘Oh, oh.’ Today, they were just sitting there, horrified.” Gang hasn’t been to a zoo since childhood. Her discomfort with cetaceans in captivity is partly a matter of personal ethics, but it’s also a response to poor design. There must be a better way to inspire city dwellers to care for the vast, invisible wilderness that is the ocean, she believes, than by using “a swimming pool painted blue with dolphins swimming around.”

The offices of Studio Gang Architects occupy an entire floor above an Aldo shoe store in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. To reflect the firm’s collaborative nature, the plan is open: only Gang has an office, and it is walled with glass. The windows are plentiful, the natural light abundant, the recycling obsessive. The space smells of freshly milled wood, except for the model shop, which smells of epoxy. The whir and drone of its power tools often filter into meetings.

Pieces of wood, concrete, and marble are everywhere in the studio. Material research is Gang’s “playtime,” she says, and also integral to her work. In 2003, at the National Building Museum, in Washington, D.C., she created an eighteen-foot-high curtain from six hundred and twenty puzzle pieces of marble cut so thin that the light shone through, revealing what she calls the stone’s “secret mystery.” The curtain hung in tension, its fifteen hundred pounds barely touching the floor. No one, to Gang’s knowledge, had tried this with stone before.


The offices of Studio Gang Architects occupy an entire floor above an Aldo shoe store in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. To reflect the firm’s collaborative nature, the plan is open: only Gang has an office, and it is walled with glass. The windows are plentiful, the natural light abundant, the recycling obsessive. The space smells of freshly milled wood, except for the model shop, which smells of epoxy. The whir and drone of its power tools often filter into meetings.

Pieces of wood, concrete, and marble are everywhere in the studio. Material research is Gang’s “playtime,” she says, and also integral to her work. In 2003, at the National Building Museum, in Washington, D.C., she created an eighteen-foot-high curtain from six hundred and twenty puzzle pieces of marble cut so thin that the light shone through, revealing what she calls the stone’s “secret mystery.” The curtain hung in tension, its fifteen hundred pounds barely touching the floor. No one, to Gang’s knowledge, had tried this with stone before.

Gang loves wood. At Lincoln Park Zoo, she wanted to bend a kiosk into the shape of a tortoiseshell; she consulted boatbuilders to learn how. For the final structure, small laminated pieces of Douglas fir were soaked and then glued together to make curved ribs that snapped together, with fibreglass pods between, on the site. For a social-justice center now being built at Kalamazoo College, Gang revived a local vernacular tradition of using cordwood instead of bricks for masonry. She found “an old-school hippie,” as she describes him, to train her staff and contractors. Embedded in mortar, the crosscut white-cedar logs evoke, in their density, a tightly packed crowd.

Studio Gang, Solstice on the Park

Studio Gang, Solstice on the Park

Gang has little interest in form alone and has written critically of master refiners who simply hone the same design and details at ever greater cost. Blair Kamin, the longtime architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, credits her for refusing, after Aqua, to “indulge in a facile repeat of that success.” Her marriage of thinking and building, he believes, places her in the tradition of Rem Koolhaas, for whom she once worked. And her attention to material and detail, Kamin adds, recalls Louis Sullivan and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

None of Gang’s structures resemble one another. Some of her projects are not structures at all. At Lincoln Park Zoo, where she built her tortoise kiosk, she revived a stagnant pond by deepening it, ripping out a concrete rim, and edging it with plants that would help clean the rainwater. Today, South Pond is a thriving metropolis of insects, ducks, migrating birds, butterflies, turtles, even coyotes—“a zoo without cages,” Gang calls it. The reeds next to a boardwalk that she also designed rustle with hidden life.

Gang wants to restore wildness to nature in urban settings. But she also believes in using design to make nature “legible,” as she puts it. On the edge of Lake Michigan, construction is under way on a far larger Gang project: a plan to turn Northerly Island, a ninety-one-acre man-made peninsula that once housed a small airport, into a vast public park. Gang’s design includes an amphitheatre, a concrete reef to soften the waves, and hills to offer rest to migrating birds and views to humans. On a fall morning, in finger-stiffening cold, Gang walked next to the lake, which groaned audibly in the wind. She was looking for birds, of which there were few, but the setting provided compensation: the sky marbled with clouds and light, the water a pale metallic blue, the wild grasses a seductive burnt orange. Some landscape architects had criticized her site plan, which also featured paths and a mosaic of hexagonal plantings, for not looking “natural” enough. “It’s impossible to replicate nature—it’s too good,” Gang told me. “It’s about trying to find that space where it’s art.”

Gang grew up in the small town of Belvidere, about seventy miles northwest of Chicago. She spent most of her free time outside, building tree houses and forts, roaming the preserved remnants of wilderness on the edge of town. Her father was the civil engineer for Boone County, and he took Gang on formative early-morning trips to look at bridges, roads, and natural landscapes. Her mother, a community activist and later a librarian, also influenced her: Gang prefers projects that tackle social problems, notably how to create environmentally sustainable cities. Her mother led Gang’s Girl Scout troop, an experience she replicates, in a fashion, each summer, when she holds a rustic retreat for her staff, often instructing them in a Scout skill.

Gang Studio, Aqua Tower

Gang Studio, Aqua Tower

Her practice has an active research arm that intersects with but also operates independently from her projects, compiling discoveries about everything from water systems to ecology to tower typologies. Her first step on a new project is to assemble a relevant library of science, history, art, maps, even fiction. When Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, asked her to design two new boathouses along the Chicago River, Gang looked at the prints of the nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who captured, in stop-motion images, the articulated movements of rowers. Her design re-creates the rhythm with structure: the roof undulates like an oar’s rise and fall. Because the peaks repeat, so do the clerestory windows, which suffuse the space with southern light. In a workout room, the natural warp of the plywood that sheathes the roof trusses makes the ceiling look like the bottom of a boat.

One spring day in 2012, Gang and her boathouse team gathered in a room whose walls were papered with construction drawings. The project was on an unusually tight schedule: Emanuel wanted the first boathouse opened by the summer of 2013. (It opened that fall.) Her team had been “working like crazy,” Gang said. “That’s why they look really tired right now.” (“We don’t think we look that bad,” one young architect joked when Gang stepped away.)

Gang had just visited Princeton’s boathouse, and its well-lit, well-used club room had made her worry about her boathouse’s equivalent. “How are we conceiving of it?” she asked the team. She wanted to better understand the placement of the columns and the trusses in the room, how the roof would look, where the light came in. She began to think out loud, scribbling revisions on drawings. She had already added, the previous day, an open staircase to connect the first and second levels of the boathouse. Now she reoriented the rowing tanks so that they wouldn’t face the glare of the sun, relocated the storage of chairs (“Phew, I’m feeling better,” she said, once she had them safely tucked out of sight), and added panels of natural light to the bathrooms.

The project leaders were men. Gang was solicitous of their opinions and comfortable overruling them. Her manner, low key, even reserved, only somewhat obscures her drive.

“Have you guys ever put a backpack in a foot-deep shelf?” she asked at one point, critiquing a series of cubbyholes.

“I don’t carry a backpack.”

“How about your guitar?”

As she drew, she asked whether the changes she had made would add “tons of time.”

“Well, yes,” came a reluctant response.

“It’s not that much—we already did the stair last night,” Gang said.

She asked if they were modelling the second boathouse, which was at an earlier stage. No models, the team told her, blaming the “constant fire drill” of the expedited schedule. Gang countered that they could make a model from the elevation drawings, which portray a building’s façade: “Let’s do it now!” As her weary team mostly watched, she began to cut the drawings and fold and tape them into three-dimensional objects. “This is so helpful compared to looking at elevations,” she said when she finished.

Studio Gang, Writer’s Theater

Studio Gang, Writer’s Theater

The task of helping the team execute Gang’s changes and, when the schedule became imperilled, stopping her from making more would fall to Mark Schendel, the firm’s managing principal and also her husband. He had peeked in on the way to a dentist appointment to remind Gang that they were on a “very, very tight” schedule, a warning she seemed to only half heed. Schendel is lean, short-haired, and hyper-organized. His motto, attached to every e-mail, is “Accuracy, Neatness & Concentration.” From his hub in the middle of the studio, Schendel supervises the firm’s staff of fifty-six and keeps projects on budget and on time. In architecture, where more often the man is the lead designer, theirs is an unusual partnership. “He supports me,” Gang says. “It’s in his DNA.”

They met in 1993 while working for Rem Koolhaas, in Rotterdam, where Gang had moved after completing graduate school, at Harvard. Gang recalls telling Schendel that “I didn’t want to work for men, I didn’t want to be bossed by them. It made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be shunted into interior design, and I saw how these practices work. I wanted the freedom to explore my own interests.” She decided to settle in Chicago, and Schendel soon followed. The city, despite its storied skyline, had become architecturally sleepy by the mid-nineteen-nineties, a void that Gang hoped to fill. So far, all of her built work is in the Midwest, most of it in or near Chicago. (She was recently chosen to design a firehouse in Brooklyn.)

Gang and Schendel live in a century-old apartment with thick walls and huge windows that look out onto Michigan Avenue. They have customized the space with a sleek Italian kitchen (Schendel is the primary cook) and doorways heightened to nine feet or more. In place of interior walls are stepped bookcases that their cats can climb. Part of one shelf is given over to dirt—russet, green, brown, gray, and white soil—collected by Gang during her travels and displayed in an arresting collage of tiny, stacked acrylic vitrines.

The couple have no children (Schendel has a son from a previous marriage), and they spend most of their time working. “It’s exhilarating work,” Schendel says. And demanding: Gang often visits three cities in a week. She must compete for commissions against larger, more established firms, and break the news to her junior architects when they lose. Only a small number of female architects in the U.S. are as prominent, and her singularity can sometimes seem solitary. She collaborates widely, but mostly with non-architects. She has little time to spend with friends. “My colleagues are my friends,” she said, then added, “They work for me, so maybe they don’t see it that way.” Her firm is mostly female, but the developers, engineers, and contractors on most projects are not. Nowhere is this more true, Gang says, than in the building of towers: she is often the only woman in the room.
nstitutions, like materials, have secret lives. Few visitors to the National Aquarium’s tranquil new attraction, Blacktip Reef, a painstaking assemblage of artificial coral over which black-tipped sharks, stingrays, and a rescued three-flippered sea turtle glide, know that the space housed a dolphin “tray” when the aquarium opened, in 1981. The tray was small, with only two hundred and sixty thousand gallons of water; and it was dark, chlorinated, and, with reverberating pumps, noisy. Within months of its opening, one dolphin was dead and three others had been shipped off, with ulcers, to a dolphin swim program in Florida, where one still lives today.

When the aquarium next tried housing dolphins, the tank was five times larger, the light in the glass Marine Mammal Pavilion plentiful, and the soundproofing and science more advanced. For more than two decades, the dolphins did up to seven shows a day, until, in 2011, John Racanelli took over as chief executive. In his first week, two of the aquarium’s dolphin calves died, of unrelated causes. A year later, he retired the dolphin shows.

Studio Gang, University of Chicago, Residential Commons

Studio Gang, University of Chicago, Residential Commons

Racanelli is a surfer, a sailor, a swimmer, and a diver, and a lifelong advocate for the ocean. He was one of the first employees at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where cetaceans have never been displayed. In a 2011 speech, he dismissed the notion that captive dolphins and whales are “ambassadors for their species” as a “well-worn familiar old saw,” one that was becoming less relevant each year. In place of the shows at the National Aquarium, he threw open the pavilion doors, so that visitors can wander in at leisure and stay as long as they please. The dolphins mostly swim and sleep, and at informal intervals display, in conjunction with their trainers, learned behaviors such as fetching rings or aerial leaps. But many visitors still come expecting a show, in part because the architecture—bleachers arrayed around the tank—cues them to. “We trained the humans” to expect dolphins to perform, Racanelli says. The new approach, perhaps unique among aquariums, aims to retrain them.

Bayley, the youngest of the eight dolphins, is five. The oldest, Nani, is forty-two. Racanelli would prefer that they not live out their years in a tank. “There are chimp sanctuaries, orangutan sanctuaries, gorilla sanctuaries, elephant sanctuaries, big-cat sanctuaries, bird sanctuaries,” he says. “And there’s probably a lot of sanctuaries I don’t even know about—horses and police dogs. And there’s not yet a dolphin sanctuary. What’s that about?” He considered creating a sanctuary, perhaps a series of sea pens, in a different location, and using the pavilion for another purpose. He sought out Gang to create a new master plan for the aquarium.


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Source: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/05/19/the-urban-wild