Interview

Jeanne Gang

Design should be used to make a social difference, the award-winning architect behind the American Museum of Natural History’s new wing tells Magali Robathan


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Design has the ability to manifest change in the world,” says Jeanne Gang.

“It’s not just about doing a building, it’s figuring out what power it has to make a positive difference. You could just design a building and stop there, but unless you understand what its potential could be, what’s the point?”

I meet Jeanne Gang, founder of Chicago-based architecture and urbanism practice Studio Gang, in Berlin. It doesn’t take long in her company to realise that these aren’t just empty words. Gang believes passionately in the power of design, and says that she will only take on projects with the potential to act as a force for good.

“That’s the reason I work,” she says, simply. “Although it gives me a thrill to see something come to physical reality, it’s all about moving us forwards in terms of community and wellbeing.

“It’s not about manifestos. It’s about trying to understand the world that we’re all inhabiting; trying to make sense of it and put our work in the place where it can actually do something.”

Since launching Studio Gang in 1997 (after a stint working for Rem Koolhaas at OMA), Gang has built a name for herself with a range of projects that look to nature for inspiration and straddle her interests in ecology, cities and communities.

One of her highest profile projects, Aqua Tower in Chicago (the world’s tallest tower by a female-led practice), is set apart from most skyscrapers by its organic form, and was designed to help migrating birds avoid fatal collisions and to reduce wind tunnel effect at the base of the tower.

The Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago transformed a neglected urban pond into an ecological habitat teeming with life, while the Writer’s Theatre, in the Chicago suburb of Glencoe, Illinois, aims to ‘bring people together across boundaries’ in an open, transparent building, clad with cedar, glass and concrete.

Current leisure projects include the Eleanor Boathouse, which recently opened in Chicago; a masterplan and dolphin sanctuary for Baltimore’s National Aquarium; the Solar Carve tower in New York (designed with the sun’s path in mind, so parts of the tower are carved out to prevent sunlight being blocked from the adjacent High Line); a plan to create a new district for the Black Ensemble Theatre in Chicago; and the expansion of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Studio Gang’s work with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) sees the practice design a major new $340m wing for the museum.

The six storey Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation, will provide more space for exhibitions, learning, laboratories and open storage for the museum’s collections, and will feature an insectarium, a butterfly vivarium and an immersive theatre. The centrepiece is the dramatic cavernous Central Exhibition Hall (described by the New York Times as ‘part Dr Seuss, part Jurassic Park’), which is flooded with daylight from above and features a series of concrete connective bridges and balconies.

One of the key aims of the new wing is to allow visitors to experience the museum as an active scientific and educational institution as well as a place for public exhibitions – the AMNH offers classes from preschool up to teacher training and PhDs in science education.

“It’s so important for people to understand science right now,” says Jeanne Gang. “You’ve got people denying climate change. It’s a crisis.

A WOMAN WITH A MISSION
Gang studied architecture at the University of Illinois and Harvard Graduate School of Design, and then started her career in the Netherlands, with OMA. After working under Rem Koolhaas for two years – where her projects included the celebrated Maison a Bordeaux – she moved back to the US. In 1997, aged 33, she set up Studio Gang in Chicago.

Studio Gang is a collective of 91 ‘architects, designers and thinkers’ with offices in Chicago and New York. It’s a highly collaborative, research-based practice that works closely with a diverse range of experts, both inside and outside of architecture.

The practice has an active research arm, and Gang writes for a variety of publications – recent articles include a piece on managing mining of the deep seabed for Science magazine and an essay on transitioning zoos and aquaria for the 21st century for Minding Nature magazine. She has also taught at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Rice, Columbia, and IIT.

“Teaching, exhibitions, independent research and my writing are fuel for our projects,” says Gang. “These articles and research topics take very different tracks from architecture, and are not necessarily specifically related to a building, but they inform a lot of our work.

“We’re a group of people who are curious about the world and so we want architecture to resonate with its time and place.”

Gang is also known for her deep interest in materials, and describes material research as her ‘playtime’. This interest started at a young age. As a child, growing up in a small town outside Chicago, she was “always making stuff,” she says.

“I just liked to make space and build things, to work with materials, to test them, try and break them,” she continues. “One exercise I get students to do is taking a material and asking them: How does it break? How does it fail? You learn so much about a material when you try to wreck it.”

On childhood road trips across the US in the family station wagon, Gang’s love of the natural landscape deepened. “My earliest memories are from these road trips, filling up my suitcase with a rock from every place we visited,” she explains. “I still have a collection of rocks, pine cones, earth and birds’ nests. The things that nature produces are just incredible.”

On one of these trips, Gang remembers visiting the Mese Verde National Park and marvelling at a site of abandoned Native American dwellings built into the hillside. “It just blew me away, the way it combined landscape and architecture,” she says.

Studio Gang’s first project was the development for a new college theatre at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Illinois. Gang drew from nature to create a flower-like retractable roof for the theatre, consisting of six petal-shaped panels that open in fine weather (and close in bad weather so the show can go on). It was a stylish solution and impressive feat of engineering that marked the fledgling practice as one to watch.

Since then, the team has refused to be pigeonholed, working on projects across a range of sectors, including leisure (theatres, boathouses, museums, a concert hall), residential, community and education, as well as several innovative temporary installations (including a piece for Design Miami 2014 that used Swarovski crystals to evoke the melting polar ice caps). Along the way, the practice has picked up numerous awards, and last March Jeanne Gang was awarded Architect of the Year at The Architectural Review’s Women in Architecture Awards.

AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
In November 2015, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) revealed plans to expand, with a new wing designed by Studio Gang. Exhibition design is by Ralph Appelbaum Associates and Reed Hilderbrand are responsible for the landscape design of a portion of the adjacent Theodore Roosevelt Park.

Studio Gang approached the project by “trying to figure out the DNA of that organisation, and what was needed there,” says Gang.

“There are 25 buildings on that campus, and they are all glommed onto each other in a really ad hoc way,” she continues. “In my experience visiting the museum, I’ve got lost a lot of times. I realised that with a couple of very simple moves we could clarify the organisation, [the various buildings] would become much more connected, and it would make it easier for people to consciously plan their journey around the museum.

“Our new wing is almost like an ‘inny’ belly button, going way into the centre of the campus to connect to this circulation concept. Once we did it, it was an obvious thing to do, but no one had thought of it before; they just kept adding on to the side of the building.”

The design of the central exhibition hall, with its undulating walls and bridges that bring to mind natural landscapes, followed on from that starting point, explains Gang.

“Because we were studying the flow in the building, we started thinking about flow in nature, and looking at all of those landscapes and materials that are about flow, like ice and canyons and geology,” she says. “It ended up taking on this identity that gives people a sense that there’s something to discover.”

BALTIMORE AQUARIUM
Four years ago, the National Aquarium in Baltimore sought out Studio Gang to help with their quest to rethink aquariums for the future.The National Aquarium, which opened in 1981, is housed in a building on Pier 3 of Baltimore’s inner harbour. A separate building on Pier 4, the Marine Mammal Pavilion, opened in 1994 and is home to the aquarium’s colony of dolphins.
When ocean conservationist John Racanelli joined the National Aquarium as chief executive in 2011, one of the first things he did was stop the stunt-filled dolphin performances that were part of the aquarium’s offer.

“John Racanelli really wants to make the transition from being an entertainment venue to becoming a conservation organisation,” explains Gang. “We’ve been working with them for a number of years to make that happen.

“At a time when we really need science and education about the ocean, aquaria have tended to be based on an entertainment model. You pay to get in, you buy plastic trinkets from the gift store, you watch a dolphin jump through a hoop. Having them perform in that way doesn’t tell you anything about the natural behaviour of dolphins or about the animals of the ocean.”

“In zoos they used to have elephants in tutus. We don’t do that anymore.”

Last summer, the National Aquarium announced that it plans to move its dolphins from captivity into a seaside sanctuary by 2020 and Studio Gang released details of its strategic masterplan for the organisation.

Gang’s strategic masterplan identifies opportunities for sustainable growth and aims to improve the layout of the aquarium, connect it to the harbour, transform the experience it offers and provide more facilities for conservation work and education. The plan suggests connecting existing facilities on Pier 3 and Pier 4 via an urban wetland based on the tidal meanders of the Chesapeake Bay, which could attract wildlife and increase biodiversity. And then there’s the longer term plan, which sees Studio Gang working on ideas for the dolphin sanctuary, as well as uses for the Pier 4 building.

“It’s a very complex thing,” says Gang, of the sanctuary. “It would be the world’s first dolphin sanctuary, so there are lots of questions to be answered. How do those animals survive? If you do an oceanside sanctuary they could be subject to hurricanes, and so on. There’s a lot of work going on around all of that right now.”

A BUSY YEAR
2017 is turning out to be a busy year. As well as the American Museum of Natural History and National Aquarium projects, the practice is working on a summer installation for the National Building Museum in Washington DC. Their temporary structure will follow James Corner Field Operations’ Icebergs, with previous collaborations including The BEACH by Snarkitecture (2015) and the BIG Maze by the Bjarke Ingels Group (2014).

Studio Gang have collaborated with the National Building Museum in the past, including a 2003 exhibition which saw marble puzzle pieces hung in tension from the museum’s vaulted ceiling.

The practice is also currently working with the Black Ensemble Theatre in Chicago on a plan to create a new district that could include a café, education space and residential units.

“The idea is to build a district that is free to be anything. A kind of safe space, but also a dynamic engaging space,” says Gang.

More generally, Jeanne Gang says she is looking at the bigger picture of the work she takes on.

“I’ve been trying to connect the dots in my own practice,” she says. “It’s this interest in materiality and structure and space on the one hand, with whole communities and our desire to make a difference in the bigger society on the other.

“I’m trying to pull those two ends together.”

The Writers Theatre

Glencoe, Illinois, US

Built for the Writers Theatre group, this performing arts centre opened in Glencoe, Illinois in February 2016.

The theatre is spread across a village-like cluster of distinct volumes around a central hub, and features a glass-clad lobby which glows in the dark at night to beckon people in. The 36,000sq ft (3,345sq m) complex includes rehearsal rooms, a second-floor gallery and three performance spaces – a main stage, a 99-seat black box venue and the lobby – designed to be intimate and easily configurable.

“I’m excited about projects where the organisation is on the verge of change, and the Writers Theatre was one of those, They were operating out of the back of this tiny little book store. The performances were getting more and more well known regionally and nationally. They needed the architecture, the building, to help them get to the next level.

The theatre needed to operate on this other level; being a place for the community to unfold. It’s a civic space. Usually theatres are just these black boxes that are closed off and not visible to the outside world. Our design expands the time people spend talking to one another” - Jeanne gang

At night the Writers Theatre glows from within, attracting the interest of passers by and drawing people inside / Steve Hall ©Hedrich Blessing
At night the Writers Theatre glows from within, attracting the interest of passers by and drawing people inside Steve Hall ©Hedrich Blessing
At night the Writers Theatre glows from within, attracting the interest of passers by and drawing people inside / Steve Hall ©Hedrich Blessing
At night the Writers Theatre glows from within, attracting the interest of passers by and drawing people inside Steve Hall ©Hedrich Blessing
Jeanne Gang / Photo: ©Sally Ryan
Jeanne Gang Photo: ©Sally Ryan
The staging has been designed to maximise intimacy between actors and audience.
The staging has been designed to maximise intimacy between actors and audience.
The lobby acts as a multi purpose space
The lobby acts as a multi purpose space

Aqua Tower

Chicago, US

Completed in 2010, the 82 storey, 876-foot Aqua Tower in Chicago combines a hotel, offices, rental apartments, condominiums, and parking, and features one of Chicago’s largest green roofs.

The irregular, sculpted shape of the tower was inspired by geological forms, and creates outdoor terraces , maximising views and solar shading and allowing residents to interact easily with their neighbours. The undulating shape also helps to prevent bird collisions, along with the fritted glass etched with grey marks that make it easier for birds to see it.

"The design for Aqua uses architecture to capture and reinterpret the human and outdoor connections that occur more naturally when living closer to the ground. Its distinctive form is achieved by varying the floor slabs across the height of the tower, based on criteria such as views, sunlight, and use" - Jeanne Gang

The undulating shape of Aqua Tower effectively ‘confuses’ the heavy Chicago winds, helping to stabilise the building / Steve Hall ©Hedrich Blessing
The undulating shape of Aqua Tower effectively ‘confuses’ the heavy Chicago winds, helping to stabilise the building Steve Hall ©Hedrich Blessing

The Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo

Chicago, US

For this project, completed in 2010, Studio Gang designed a boardwalk and nature trail around a 19th century pond in Lincoln Park Zoo, as well as a curved wooden pavilion, which acts as an open air classroom. Studio Gang used the project to improve the water quality of the urban pond and transform it into a thriving ecological habitat.

"We were asked to design a pavilion for the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo. They just wanted to do a pavilion and call it a day, but when we started looking at the site we realised there was much more to it. We said: Let’s take over the pond itself, which was picturesque but smelly, dirty and unsustainable.

We put a team together who were able to address habitat, environment and water quality, and by redoing the pond with this more biodiverse habitat it became a magnet for all kinds of plants and animals. It’s this incredibly wild space right in the middle of the city.

The pavilion itself is made out of bent wood; it’s beautiful. Without the architecture the spot wouldn’t be the magnet for people the way it is now. This shows the potential a building has to inspire change." - Jeanne Gang

The Nature Boardwalk runs around the pond, passing through educational zones that highlight the animals, plants and habitats / Tom Harris Photography
The Nature Boardwalk runs around the pond, passing through educational zones that highlight the animals, plants and habitats Tom Harris Photography
The Nature Boardwalk runs around the pond, passing through educational zones that highlight the animals, plants and habitats / Tom Harris Photography
The Nature Boardwalk runs around the pond, passing through educational zones that highlight the animals, plants and habitats Tom Harris Photography

National Building Museum's Summer Block Series

As CLADmag was going to press, Studio Gang revealed the first details about the interactive installation they are creating for the National Building Museum’s 2017 Summer Block Series in Washington D.C.

The intricate structure, called Hive, will be formed of 2,700 wound interlocking paper tubes of different sizes – from several inches to 10ft high. They will feature a reflective silver exterior and vivid magenta interior, “creating a spectacular visual contrast with the museum’s historic nineteenth-century interior and colossal Corinthian columns.”

Soaring to the uppermost reaches of the museum’s Great Hall, Studio Gang’s creation will feature three interconnected, domed chambers reaching 60ft in height. The tallest dome will feature an oculus over 10ft wide.

By utilising the catenary shape, each chamber will balance structural forces and support its own weight, while attaining a height that enables a unique acoustic signature.

“You almost feel like you’re in an outside space because of the distance sound travels before it is reflected back and made audible,” said Jeanne Gang, who revealed the domed form is inspired by built structures such as Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis and Filippo Brunelleschi’s Dome at the Florence Cathedral in Italy.

 / ©studio gang
©studio gang
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