The Building Blocks of Creativity

Architect Jeanne Gang radically changed the Chicago skyline with the award-winning Aqua Tower.

by Jill McDonnell @ Design Bureau Magazine

Although Chicagoans may look out the window from their office buildings and see a strangely shaped building, Jeanne Gang looks out the window and sees her own handiwork: 82 stories of uneven concrete floor slabs that comprise the rippling facade of Aqua Tower—her personal imprint on the city’s skyline.

When viewing the unique building, onlookers may gaze up and envy the wide open terraces and stunning city views—both hallmarks of the building’s luxury digs. Gang recalls how she had to design the building with balconies that stretched outward by as much as 12 feet to achieve such prize-winning vantage points. It’s this out-of-the box approach with Aqua Tower and her other projects that has garnered Gang and her team at namesake firm Studio Gang Architects national and international accolades within the architecture community, in part due to her fascination with the intricacies of building materials.

“Some artists are more about the paint than the subject, and that’s like me—I’m most interested in bringing out the inner secret of the specific material I’m using in my design,” she says. Gang notes an early interest in how things fit together, which is why Christmas- time at her household in the late 70s often included presents of puzzles and riddles, Legos and Rubik’s cubes from her civil engineer father and school librarian mother. “I was always interested in what things were made of, and how they were composed,” says Gang.

Some artists are more about the paint than the subject, and that’s like me—I’m most interested in bringing out the inner secret of the specific material I’m using in my design.

– Jeanne Gang

Gang’s youthful curiosity about the composition of materials is still alive and well in her work today, and has now given way to an emphasis on recycled materials during this era of green building. When she and her firm were conducting background research in preparation for their work designing the Ford Calumet Environmental Center, they learned the center was smack in the middle of a migratory pathway that birds used during their winter southbound journey to South America. Suddenly, the building project became a death hazard for the literal thousands of birds who would fly over this path. “I think something like 30 million birds die a year from smashing into glass, which makes architects the biggest bird killers. So, we created a kind of ‘nest’ that enclosed the front of the building out of reclaimed local material, including steel, so that they wouldn’t crash into this glass,” says Gang. It’s this kind of attention to detail with materials that not only saves birds’ lives, but also serves her well with the analytical aspect inherent to her field.

“We want to create a building that has resonance, and to do so, we need to understand the history of the city, the history of the site and the building types found commonly in that area,” said Gang. “All of this knowledge provides a backdrop to our design.”

Outside of building her personal portfolio, Gang is a major advocate of education in the field and passes her knowledge and experience on to students in her role as adjunct associate professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She hopes that her appreciation for both research and the building blocks of architecture will help to spark future generations of architects. “You don’t just graduate from school and all of a sudden you’re ready to become an architect. It’s important to have an interface between the academic classroom and the profession,” she says. “In the studios I teach, I allow students to explore ideas of how they might design a project and what materials they would use. Teaching also benefits me because it allows me to be even more creative.”

Through all of the project sites she’s been exposed to, both big and small, to the captains of industry she’s met who have asked for her insight on their latest endeavor, Gang holds firm to her favorite aspect of her near 30-year career: the simple act of creating things.

“I just love making things—drawing, building models, etc.,” said Gang. “Being an architect is 24/7—I never stop thinking about it.”

by Jill McDonnell

Chicago-based Jill McDonnell has her master’s degree in public relations and currently works in media relations. Follow her at www.Jeeill.tumblr.com.



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