Blooming 'starchitect' Jeanne Gang thrives on sustainable design, craves construction, is mad for materials and builds community

Gang is also like a landscape architect, combining design, culture, and natural and engineered systems to clean up the environment, attract wildlife and build community. She talks excitedly about the zoo's 20-acre restoration, which incorporates the pavilion, referring to rebuilt habitats for red-winged blackbirds, migratory geese and some of the city's 2,000 coyotes.

Sightlines dominated architect Jeanne Gang’s thinking behind Aqua Tower’s cantilevered terraces, including views to Lake Michigan.

“We hear buzzwords like sustainability,” says Sachin Anand, a principal with mechanical engineer dbHMS, Chicago, whose first collaboration with Gang was on the Ford center. “I think she lives it.”

Her guiding principles can be summed up by five words: research, reveal, realize, record, remember. For each project, Gang and her team spend time exploring materials and technology as well as the site's history, landscape and sociology. The research reveals the design. Realization, or construction, follows. Next comes the recording phase, which helps with remembering.

Her major “recording” to date, titled “Reveal” and published last month by Princeton Architectural Press, puts a new twist on a monograph of work. Instead of the usual approach, “Reveal” presents only eight of about 50 of the studio's projects. It offers myriad viewpoints and educates more than it self-promotes.

“Reveal” includes articles that aren't even about architecture. One piece is a Q&A between Gang and two bird rescuers whom she followed around downtown Chicago one day as part of her research for the Ford center. Gang also includes a foldout article on the Eddystone Lighthouse, the inspiration for her 18-ft-tall “Marble Curtain” installation that hung together like a 3D jigsaw puzzle while on view in 2003-04 at the National Building Museum. The piece also includes a step-by-step guide for making a marble curtain.

In some ways, Gang modeled her 41-person practice, which she started in 1997 and calls a collective, on Rem Koolhaas's Office of Metropolitan Architecture, Rotterdam, where she worked from 1993-95. “Rem treated the office like a studio,” she says. “It was about the exploration of ideas. It wasn't about him drawing a sketch and handing it out.”

Koolhaas, who is not surprised by Gang's success, says she struck him as being incredibly determined. “She wrestled with any problem and would not stop until she had it settled,” says Koolhaas, an OMA founder. “For someone in a junior position, it was quite unusual to see this.”

“Jeanne has succeeded not only because she is imaginative but because she loves to build.”
— Blair Kamin, architecture critic

Like OMA, Gang relies on research and physical models and engages consultants early. “She is probably the only architect I have worked with who calls in the mechanical engineer while she is working on the early architecture of a project,” says Anand.

Kara Boyd, an SGA senior designer, thinks Gang and Mark Schendel, her managing principal and husband, are not typical architects, saying, “They encourage other ideas and know how to incorporate them into a concept.”

Critic Kamin agrees that Gang is different. “Numerous architects are infamous for imposing their will on clients. Jeanne, to date, is notable for her willingness and eagerness to listen to her client and mold the design to the program [and client needs],” he says.

Gang first won acclaim in 2003 for the open-air Starlight Theatre in Rockford, Ill. (ENR 6/16/03 p. 17). The 42,000-sq-ft theater's roof opens like the petals of a flower. “It's great architecture,” says Kamin. The design was rooted in the client's need for a covering to avoid rainouts. To accommodate budget constraints, Gang designed it to be built in phases.

James R. Loewenberg, co-CEO of Aqua's developer, Magellan Development Group, and president of Loewenberg Architects, Aqua's architect-of-record, says one reason he picked Gang was because she doesn't have a big ego. He also wanted someone with no high-rise experience who could offer fresh ideas.

Gang graduated from the University of Illinois-Champaign in 1986. In 1989, she attended the Swiss Federal University of Technical Studies in Zurich. A master's degree from Harvard University's Graduate School of Design followed in 1993.

“She is extra focused, has the skills, and people take her seriously,” says Phil Harrison, president and CEO in the Atlanta office of Perkins & Will. The two have been friendly competitors since their Harvard days.

About the worst thing anyone has to say about Gang is that some of Aqua's constructed details could be more refined. Some say the inexperience of the young SGA staff sometimes can lead the rest of the job's team down blind alleys. Others say Gang is more difficult to reach now that she is famous.

Gang blames the recession, not her sudden starchitect stature, for being so difficult to reach. “I'm so busy spending time trying to get projects,” she says.

She has been successful at that, even though only one job is currently under construction. Rather than recession-related layoffs, SGA has grown.

" “She was able to extract from a developer's project a personal statement.”
—Rem Koolhaas, architect

Gang attributes that growth to working at many scales and on diverse project types, from the two-bedroom urban Brick Weave House to the plan for the 91-acre Northerly Island peninsula, both in Chicago.

In 10 or 20 years, Gang hopes to be doing larger-scale projects and more work abroad. Kamin wonders whether, working internationally, she will be able to maintain her engagement with construction.

Regarding Aqua, Koolhaas remains impressed with how Gang was able “to extract a personal statement from a developer's project [under] a very tight budget,” he says. “I know how difficult it is to do that.”

Despite the recession, Aqua is a huge success. Its 474 rental units are 96% leased, its 273 condominiums are more than 75% sold, and its 334-room hotel, delayed after losing its first operator, is on course to open by the fall. “We hit a home run,” says Loewenberg.

Gang declines requests for other Aquas. For her, design is not about icons or signatures; it is about revealing form from its setting. In large part, Aqua's looks were inspired by a drive to give its occupants specific views that would have been blocked by neighboring towers were it not for the extreme cantilevers.

Loewenberg, intrigued by Gang's design philosophy, says he would use her again. As he says, “Who knows what she'll come up with next time?”