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“How do you create the condition for innovation to happen?” asked Jeanne Gang opening up her lecture, which kicked off Record's 2012 Innovation conference in New York. It’s not just about the latest robotic tools, she points out—it’s about keeping an eye on the array of tools at our disposal and knowing when to pick up the right one. And, for Gang, this is deeply connected with the physical space of her practice, Studio/Gang/Architects, which she founded in Chicago in 1997. It has to do with the people in it and the activities going on there: “These are the most essential tools in practice for generating innovative ideas,” she stressed.

At Studio Gang, every project has an accompanying reading list composed mostly of non-architecture books that the design team studies and refers to over the course of the project. The office also conducts seminars, hosting outside guests to stimulate dialog. And a lot of physical modeling, mock-up construction, and intentional breaking of materials happens in the firm’s shop as the team pursues ideas and investigations. “It’s important to realize that there is process innovation,” points out Gang. Frequently, discoveries do not have immediate, direct application, and often one project feeds the next. For example, the design for the (as yet unrealized) Hyderabad Tellapur 02 tower, which Gang presented, was born from wind shaping ideas that stemmed from the development of the Aqua Tower (2010) in Chicago.

Gang underscored the importance of low-tech “innovations,” and examining existing materials and techniques, such as the sun-dried brick the team learned to use in Hyderabad. Wood is another one of these materials. It figures prominently in the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago (2010), as well as the forthcoming Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois, and Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, which will be made with cordwood masonry walls. “The newest techniques work best when supplemented with other forms,” points out Gang. This approach, she stresses, “expands our capacity to see, understand, and communicate architecture.”