Jeanne Gang
Photo by Marc Olivier Le-Blanc

Jeanne Gang: “How could this be transformed?”

Short Profile

Name: Jeanne Gang
DOB: 19 March 1964
Place of birth: Belvidere, Illinois, United States
Occupation: Architect

Ms. Gang, what does a successful city mean for you as an architect?

I think that every city is different and therefore very specific. You have to find out what's already there and start with that, build onto that, and extend that into the future. That’s kind of my motto. Even if it seems there's nothing, there is something there to start from. For example, if you’re in a desert, you would want to understand what's already living there and how a building would function with that climate, how you could foster more reciprocity between the place, the architecture, and the habitat. That's what I think makes a city successful: it needs to be doing something for all living beings there. In general, it's hard to have a successful city that is very spread-out.

How come?

If you want to have a walkable or bikeable city, for example, it needs to be a bit more compact. We're currently working in Brasilia, where we're designing the United States Embassy. What's interesting about the city is that it was built to be very spread out. There’s a cerrado plant ecosystem that could be developed further and some beautiful architecture, but it’s spread too far apart for walking, and so it limits a sense of community and connectivity.The architects working there now are trying to fill in those gaps instead of spreading the city out further. Now, residents can actually get around Brasilia with bikes, which is incredible.

“What is the potential of this project? What is the relevance of it? Can we move the needle with respect to sustainability, community, and making things more equitable?”

Are you choosing your projects these days based on those goals of community and connectivity that you just mentioned?

When projects walk in the door, we have a process of vetting them: Who is it for? Is it realistic? Does it have goals that are ambitious enough? There are boxes that it has to tick, and you’re right that community and connectivity are big ones for us, as well as sustainability. But then there are also building projects that you would’ve never thought to consider before, and now someone is asking you to do it. You have to analyze: How could this be transformed? What is the potential of this project? What is the relevance of it? Can we move the needle with respect to sustainability, community, and making things more equitable?

It seems like in general your firm might be less interested in building skyscrapers these days — even though your first major project was the still-iconic Aqua Tower.

I was introduced to the developer of Aqua Tower by a client I was working with on another project. I’d never really thought about doing a high-rise at that point in my career, but of course I jumped at the opportunity because I felt this was a building type that really needed to be reinvented, so let’s see what we can do with it. We treated it as an opportunity to think of it differently, as a piece of infrastructure for living. That’s still how I think of high-rise buildings; they are important because they're ubiquitous. A lot of people live in them. But I think we need to improve their quality and make them more sustainable. I'm still interested in them, but I've never been exclusively interested in that. I really like public projects and those that are helping people or organizations to grow. I love museums, libraries, and places where you can break down some of these barriers that people have between each other.

The SOS Children’s Villages Lavezzorio Community Center in Chicago, which your studio completed in 2008, comes to mind as a great example.

That project was a challenge because we’d designed it a certain way, but then ended up using only donated materials in the construction because there was a limited budget. It became this really interesting process where we had to design from whatever was getting donated, which was not exactly easy. I mean, one of the things that we had donated was a revolving door! (Laughs) I probably wouldn't have designed it that way, but the community really came together to get their first community center built.

Is that what you mean by moving the needle with respect to sustainability?

Sure, but there are many ways to build sustainably. Of course, there’s reusing materials, but there’s also a focus on the performance of the buildings, how little energy they use… I also have another area of interest called “grafting,” which looks at buildings and how they can be more effectively reused, or how their uses can be changed in order to expand a building’s capacity or longevity. I've been always interested in what nature has to teach us. Grafting in horticulture means taking an old root stock and adding a scion onto it to make a new plant. The idea, which I explore in my book The Art of Architectural Grafting, is that you would be able to have new varieties, tastier fruit, and more resilient plants… And I’m using this as a kind of framework for architecture.

You mean like historic preservation?

That’s one part of it, and it can be a really important tool. But there's also this urgent need to reduce our carbon footprints by increasing the capacity of existing buildings’ use or repurposing them, rather than tearing them down or building anew. For example, the Beloit College Powerhouse is an example of architectural grafting. It’s a former coal burning power plant that we reimagined as a student recreational center with a track, a gym, a pool, a health center… Adapting the former building preserves its historic past and connects its new life to what was there before. It’s also grafted into the campus’ pre-existing system of infrastructure to be easily accessible to students.

How important is it for you as an architect to stay connected to your own roots? Are you still able to take on projects like the SOS Children’s Villages Lavezzorio Community Center these days, or is that not really feasible for your firm anymore?

Yes, it’s still important for us to keep doing those community-minded projects, even though we have much larger projects in our portfolio. We’re working on the International Women's Baseball Center in Rockford, Illinois, and the Shirley Chisholm Recreation Center in Brooklyn… We still love to feel that connection to local communities. Most of my early projects were community centers in Chicago: one on the south side, another in Chinatown, and another on the far south side in a blue collar area that dates back to the steel days. That really helped me understand all these communities and what keeps them together, which is feeling empowered, a sense of belonging, and ownership. That was something that I learned in Studio Gang’s early days, and I continue to carry that with me.

You were in your early thirties when you started your firm, right? That must have been daunting.

I was around 30, yes. It was something I always wanted to do, but I was waiting for the right moment. When I did finally launch Studio Gang, it was exciting and daunting, but I was never thinking about: How can we survive? I was just focusing on each project and making it the best it could be… I was passionate about practicing architecture in a way that was different from other firms I had experienced, which drove me to get out on my own and be confident in doing things my own way.