When Jeanne Gang says she wants to go to the river, you go to the river.
I tracked down the 54-year-old architect, the founding principal of Chicago-based Studio Gang, in Prague, and she immediately proposed we go off in search of the mighty Vltava—or, at the very least, a drink. She had come to the Czech Republic to deliver the keynote speech at reSITE, an annual conference on architectural design, urban issues, and technology. But even a full day of lectures was not enough to keep her away from the water.
Rivers are her thing, appealing to her on both an aesthetic and a symbolic level. From her breakthrough, Aqua Tower in Chicago, completed in 2010, to a recently announced high-rise in downtown Brooklyn, all of Gang’s projects become recognizable landmarks that foster community and a shared sense of urban identity—qualities that Gang herself has long attributed to rivers. Her 2011 book Reverse Effect, for instance, waxed rhapsodic about her hometown’s Chicago River and called for design-driven interventions to the city’s waterways. “The river is the thing that connects,” says Gang, and in many ways, her whole career has been an effort to forge connections, social and otherwise.
This past May, as part of the American Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, Gang exhibited Stone Stories, an installation that used hundreds of cobblestones as part of a study of the racial and economic history of Memphis. The stones once lined the banks of the Mississippi and were used to aid the pre–Civil War cotton trade that relied on the river for transport. In Austin, the firm’s recently announced Seaholm facility will provide space for kayaking and other amenities along the city’s waterfront, and in Little Rock, the designers just unveiled a $70 million addition to the Arkansas Art Center, a complex whose snaking forms seem to reference the nearby Arkansas River.
With an office of more than 100 designers, including her husband and managing principal Mark Schendel, Gang is working overtime, and the world has taken notice: in 2011, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius” grant; more recently, she beat out the likes of Steven Holl and Rafael Viñoly in the competition to design the new $350 million U.S. embassy in Brazil. Gang has become one of her generation’s most forward-thinking architects, a leader in the fight for more cohesive and more ecologically sensitive cities that exist in communion with nature, rather than in conflict.
Back in Prague, Gang surveys the dusty landscape on the city’s outskirts, as if she’s searching for something. “I don’t have my binoculars with me,” she says, regretfully. She took up bird-watching several years ago, and in her 2016 Writers Theater design for the community of Glencoe, Illinois, she encircled the building with a brise-soleil of slender timbers, as if to create an artificial forest where her feathered friends might roost. In Prague, the only avian life we noticed was a pair of fat magpies, picking their way through a garbage pile. But beyond a distant stand of trees, Gang spied a flash of reflected sun and, in response, bounded heedlessly down a steep slope.
Reaching the water’s edge, she came upon a view that was less than inspiring: directly ahead stood a large pumping station. Gang, however, has an affection for infrastructure.
“My father used to take us on vacations to see bridges,” she says. The elder Gang was an engineer, and his enthusiasm for everything mechanical helped set his daughter on her professional course. “I also had this aptitude as an artist,” Gang went on. While studying at the University of Illinois, she discovered that architecture was a way to combine her love of math and physics with her more creative impulses. She still reserves a special fascination for mechanics, and she paused to note that the hard stone walls of the Prague riverbank actually worsen flooding and drainage problems.
For Studio Gang’s Nature Boardwalk project at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo in 2010, the firm removed one such hardscape around a small pond, replacing it with a miniature wetlands habitat crossed by a planked track. The zoo administrators “thought that was scary,” Gang says. They were apparently concerned the marshy perimeter would look unkempt. But besides its ecological advances, the re-wilded park also affords city dwellers the experience of nature unfolding right before them.
Even with private commissions, Gang and company have a record of engaging the city at large, giving something back to the public. The firm’s first office tower in Manhattan, scheduled for completion in March, is at 40 Tenth Avenue, and it takes its nickname, “Solar Carving Strategy,” from an angled cutaway in its eastern façade, which faces the popular High Line park.
The move was a departure from existing zoning laws, which effectively encouraged tower developers in the surrounding lots to block sunlight from the High Line’s elevated green space. Gang’s solution “does just the opposite,” she says. It’s a move that has proved so popular with planning authorities that local ordinances might change to ensure that future buildings will have to do the same.
For their first residential New York condominium project, Brooklyn’s 11 Hoyt, Gang’s team once again found a way to give a private project a public presence unique to its urban locale: the 51-story high-rise has a brownstone-ish sense of scale, with molded concrete panels that ripple across the façade and create a regular pattern of three-story modules. For a designer from America’s Second City, making a splash in America’s first was important, perhaps even more so in Brooklyn.
“That’s where all my friends live,” says Gang. Working with developer Tishman Speyer, the Chicagoans look poised to pull it off when construction ends in 2020; the building will house a remarkable 190 different floor plans that range from studios to four-bedrooms (priced up to $4 million). Situated on a through-block site, the building narrows its footprint on its western side, giving a large number of the 490 units a view of either the Manhattan skyline or of the bridges on the East River, which separates Manhattan from Brooklyn.
Gang is convinced that architects and good design can be a connective force. “This is a time when everything feels so polarized,” she says. “If architecture can bring people together, that’s the most important thing.”