CLAD interview

Jeanne Gang

Studio Gang’s founder on rethinking the theatre and the aquarium

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What have you been working on lately?
We’ve recently opened a couple of projects, including the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois. The firm was up against quite a lot of well-known architects for the project, but I had a good synergy with the theatre’s artistic director, Michael Halberstam. We were challenging each other, really bringing it up to the top level.

What did you like about this project?
I get excited about projects where an organisation is on the verge of change, and the Writers Theatre was one of those. The theatre group was operating out of the back of this tiny little book store, while their performances were becoming well known both regionally and nationally.

They were acting almost as a community centre, because people would come to their performances and afterwards there was no place to have a conversation about the play or talk to each other. We were able to do a building that encourages this community.

They needed the architecture, the building, to help them get to the next level. I feel like Studio Gang is at its best when there’s a challenge like that, and we get to know the DNA of the organisation; what it is that they are going to become and how does the architecture help with that.

What does New York’s
American Museum of Natural History project mean to you?
Again, it’s trying to figure out the DNA of the organisation and what is needed. Our building, which is a new wing, is going to be one that mixes science and education and innovation all together. It’s so important for people to understand science. You’ve got people denying climate change. It’s a crisis.

Can you talk about working with Baltimore’s aquarium?
Aquariums have been used to revitalise urban spaces for the past 30 years or so and the idea of National Aquarium, in Baltimore, Maryland, was to revitalise the inner harbour in the city. However, aquariums remaining within this entertainment venue model is really holding them back from being what they could be today. There are some people who are looking for different ways to evolve these institutions, but I feel that they are being held back by the business model, which prevents them from talking about subjects like climate change because they are afraid they are going to offend their paying guests.

The CEO of the National Aquarium really wants to make that transition. One of the first things he did when he joined the aquarium was stop dolphin performance shows and have the trainers interact with the dolphins. People can watch if they want. Eventually, he realised he needed to get the dolphins out of there and into a sanctuary. We’ve been working with them for a number of years to make this transition.

It would be the first dolphin sanctuary that exists, so it’s very complex. How do those animals survive? For example, if you do an oceanside sanctuary, they could be subject to hurricanes. There’s been a lot of work going on around that right now.

So research is very important to your approach?
Teaching, exhibitions and independent research is fuel for our projects. Studio Gang undertakes a lot of research and part of our research takes sometimes very tangent tracks from architecture. When we got into the ocean subject matter, that takes you in many different directions.

We are a group of people who are curious about the world and so we want architecture to resonate with its time and its place. It’s like a lab collective. Sometimes our research projects are a competition, which takes you deeper into a subject area. There’s design research, scholarly research and exhibitions that give you a chance to think about a subject.

How would you sum up what the role of architecture should be?
The role of architecture should be expanded. People can take different directions. Design has the ability to make manifest change in the world. It’s not just doing a building, it’s figuring out what power a building has to inspire change, and understanding what that building’s potential could be.

I’ll give you an example. We were asked to design a pavilion for the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, but when we started looking at the site we realised it was along this picturesque 19th-century pond. When we saw it we realised there was much more to this than just the pavilion. Let’s take over the pond itself. What if we conceptualised this to be something more than this dirty pond?

We realised it could be a stormwater reservoir, but also a much more biodiverse habitat. We looked at environment, water quality, and by redoing the pond it became a magnet for all kinds of plants and animals. It’s this incredibly wild space in the middle of the city that now draws people. Without the architecture, it wouldn’t be a magnet.

How important is it that your work acts as a force for good?
That’s the reason I work. The only projects we do are ones that can move forward in terms of community and wellbeing.

Do you turn down projects?
At Studio Gang, we turn down projects all the time. We sit around the table every week and look at the projects coming in. Luckily we can choose right now.

Jeanne Gang was interviewed by Magali Robathan. Read the full article in CLADmag issue 2 2017

Career timeline

Born in Belvidere, Illinois

Received BSc Architecture from the University of Illinois

Received Master of Architecture from Harvard

Worked under Rem Koolhaas for OMA in Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Established Studio Gang Architects

Wins the MacArthur Fellows Program

Wins the National Design Award

Presented at the TEDWomen conference

Wins the Louis I Kahn Memorial Award

Wins Fellowship in the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada

Elected International Fellow of RIBA

Principal Works

Arkansas Arts Center /Little Rock, Arkansas

Gilder Center at the American Museum of Natural History / New York, New York

Amsterdam Tower / Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Vista Tower / Chicago, Illinois

Writers Theatre / Glencoe, Illinois

National Aquarium / Baltimore, Maryland

Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo / Chicago, Illinois

Aqua Tower / Chicago, Illinois

Chinese American Service League Kam Liu Center / Chicago, Illinois

The stage at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois / PHOTO: STEVE HALL / HEDRICH BLESSING
The stage at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois PHOTO: STEVE HALL / HEDRICH BLESSING
Urban wetland is planned for the National Aquarium, Baltimore, Maryland
Urban wetland is planned for the National Aquarium, Baltimore, Maryland
the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo
the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo
Aqua Tower
Aqua Tower
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