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The Architecture Studio of Jeanne Gang

Jeanne Gang

1 November 2014

 Integrating environment from Chicago to New York and beyond?

After five years, the Aqua Tower in Chicago – completed at the end of 2009 – remains the world’s tallest building designed by a woman-led architectural firm. With 82 stories and 1.9 million square feet, Aqua is the star among a number of completed projects from Studio Gang, the firm established by Jeanne Gang in 1997.

Aqua Tower is a striking building that set a new standard for Chicago towers. The modern skyscraper with steel frame and brick exterior was developed in Chicago from the late 1880s in the Classical Style. In the 1960s came the International Style that emphasised glass exteriors, pioneered in the city by Mies van der Rohe. Everything was vertical, sharp-edged boxes perpendicular to the ground. Buildings were dramatic structures – spears aimed at the sky.

Aqua Tower is different. Its rippling balconies leave spaces for areas without balconies on the façade. According to Gang, Aqua Tower represents “a vertical topography shaped by the forces of the city.” The model for the ripple effect might well be the striated limestone outcroppings that edge Lake Michigan as well as its waves when strong winds roil the water.

The rippled balconies are functional as well as beautiful. They provide more views of the giant lake, privacy, and unexpected shade. The balconies vary in size from 2-12 feet, so each floor slab is different, and engineering calculations had to be done separately. However, since the steel forms used to shape the concrete are flexible, the same forms could be used over and over to guide the pour of concrete balconies of various sizes.

Balcony slabs become thinner toward the front, easing drainage and keeping rainwater off the face of the building. In the winter, admits Gang, the thinner slabs allow heat to escape, but, she says, that heat loss is more than made up by less air conditioning in the summer due to the concrete canopies, the glazing, and the natural ventilation.

Aqua Tower uses six different types of glazing to match different amounts of sunlight as well as tinting to increase shade. In addition to being glazed and/or tinted, the glass is fritted or textured to keep birds from crashing into the tower. While this is also another way to reduce glare and heat, Aqua has been recognized by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) with the Proggy or progress award, for a commitment to bird welfare.

Behind that is Jeanne Gang’s commitment to developing the relationship between nature and architecture. Tiny compared to Aqua Tower but illustrating Studio Gang’s approach to architecture and the environment is the WMS Boathouse at Clark Park. It is a result of the City of Chicago’s determination to rescue the Chicago River from pollution and create a new recreational centre. The roof design alternates an inverted V and an M, creating something similar to the rhythm of rowing and allowing sunlight through the upper windows to warm the floor in the winter while opening the windows in the summer will increase air flow and help cool the interior.

“The completion of the WMS Boathouse at Clark Park exemplifies the City’s commitment to renewing its waterfront but also to investing in its youth,” said Gang. “The building provides a stimulating and fun space where young people from all over the city can participate in sport and develop important life skills. In this way, the building’s design, inspired by the rhythmic motion of rowing, parallels the forward momentum of efforts to revitalise the river while supporting the vitality of urban communities.”

Completed in 2013, the WMS Boathouse is the first of two Studio Gang boathouses in Clark Park, the second due in 2015. Meanwhile, WMS Boathouse has been recognised internationally. The project was a finalist in two categories – Sport and Civic & Community – at the World Architecture Festival in Singapore in October, competing against the best in the world.

Expansion beyond Chicago seems to be the next phase for Jeanne Gang. In May Studio Gang opened its second office, stepping onto the bigger stage of New York City. “This is a natural next step for the firm,” said Gang. “We have been working in New York for the past several years and are excited by the variety of work currently in design, along with potential engagements in the city and beyond.”

Being in New York will bring new opportunities. “Combining our presence in the Midwest with an enhanced focus on the East Coast provides us with a powerful platform to advance our work,” said Gang. The first major project is the 186,700 square foot Solar Carve Tower, a mixed-use office building along the High Line, the park built on the tracks of an unused railroad, and the Hudson River. Solar carving means using angles of the sun’s rays to sculpt the building.

The façade of Solar Carve is described on Studio Gang’s website as “based on geometric relationships between the building and the sun’s path, as well as the view between the park and the Hudson.” The High Line Park gives the building accessible green space as well as “maximum light, fresh air, and river views.” The design phase of the project will be completed in 2015.

Success with Aqua Tower has led to a big residential project in San Francisco for Tishman Speyer. Unveiled in June, the SG Folsom Tower project, one block from the famous Embarcadero, is designed with 40 stories, containing 390 condominiums, one third reserved for lower income residents.

The SG Folsom Tower is rippled too, but in an entirely different way than Aqua Tower. Because San Francisco is known for bay windows, Jeanne Gang has reworked bay windows into rows of 45-degree angled bays and balconies. “It’s easy to think of a tower like this as a sculpture, but it’s a place for people to live in as well,” said Gang. “We also want something interesting for people walking by to look at.”

Apparently, Jeanne Gang has already made that happen in Chicago. She received the Rosenberger Medal on June 15, 2013 for “transforming the skyline and landscape” of the city. This year at the American Institute of Architects Convention in June, Gang talked about what her profession means to her.

“Does architecture create social change, or is it social change that determines architecture?” she asked. Her answer: “Social change is reliant on spatial change to achieve its real potential, but it’s a dialectical relationship.” She challenged architects to use their profession to help spark social change.

A year ago while making predictions for 2014, Gang wrote, “Just as the labelling revolution has transformed the food industry, declaring the content of building materials and the chemicals used in their production will change the way we design and choose the environments we inhabit.”

She has welcomed digital technology for providing “liberating design tools that have yielded novel forms and fabrication methods. In the next few decades we will witness designers expanding their use of technology in ways that will make architecture greener and more responsive to its users.”

Ultimately, Jeanne Gang is optimistic about the future as she said in a recent talk. “At the city scale, design will move toward systemic solutions rather than one-off, resource-draining projects. This will lead to large-scale change that will improve the health of the planet.”