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Innovation & Design

Name to Know: Architect Jeanne Gang

She's bringing the sensuousness of nature, the sustainability of LEED building, and the thrill of the new to Chicago and beyond

James R. Loewenberg needed an image upgrade. The Chicago-based building designer/developer—he is president of Loewenberg Architects and co-CEO of Magellan Development Group—had been pilloried for erecting high rises that were unimaginatively ugly. His Park Millennium tower certainly didn't help. The 57-story apartment building in Chicago's Lakeshore East area was completed in 2002 to jeers. Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune's Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, compared it to a missile silo.

As Loewenberg began planning Lakeshore East's centerpiece, an 822-ft.-tall mixed-use tower across the street from Park Millennium, he looked for help from an outside architect. He chose a relative unknown, Jeanne Gang, whose biggest feat until then had been a community college theater. "I didn't want another building by another 'starchitect,' "Loewenberg says. "I thought I could accomplish much more with a fresh young face." He wagered well.

Gang took what would have been one more big box of concrete and glass and turned it into an undulating sculpture by wrapping balconies around the entire structure. The cantilevered projections ebb and flow serpentinely, disappearing entirely here and thrusting out up to 12 feet there. The effect is of a rippling sand dune or a weathered cliff of sedimentary rock. The adornments have a practical side, too: They extend views and shade rooms from the high-in-the-sky summer sun, reducing the need for air conditioning.

Kamin has called the almost-completed Aqua high rise "an exuberant exception to the banal cracker boxes around it, bringing the sensual style of the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi to sober, right-angled Chicago." Architecture writer Lynn Becker goes further, declaring that Gang represents a third school of Chicago architecture, 125 years after the first school invented the high rise and the second ushered in Modernism.

designed to leed standards

Gang's opus has grown to include a foster-care center in Chicago and an interior at Illinois Institute of Technology. She also has designed a chiseled and notched 26-story condo tower near the University of Chicago, a 1.3 million-sq.-ft. residential cube in Hyderabad, India, that is fractured into several pieces, and a visitors' hall that terraces up a hillside nature center in Greenville, S.C.

Her structures are intended to be sustainable; most are designed to the Leadership in Energy & Environment Design (LEED) standards of the U.S. Green Building Council. For instance, her "bird nest building" in a wildlife sanctuary in Chicago will be supported by 28 tripods of steel beams scavenged from nearby mills, while its terrazzo floor will be composed of slag. The use of recycled material reduces the project's energy consumption and carbon dioxide output. Another green touch: The tripods will be driven into the earth, avoiding the need to haul away soil for a foundation.

"I see architecture as part of a bigger system," she says. "Every building is not just an object—it's connected to an environment about it. The way I work is kind of like a detective, to find all of the factors that could form the building. And I usually try to produce a couple of ideas or directions and play them out and see how they shape up. We brainstorm and see what's working and what's not. Then we get back together. The concept of the building evolves. It's not like you nail it the first day with the first thought. My philosophy of design is really about making some kind of poetry out of all those factual and scientific criteria."

Of course, other architects have fallen from grace after being anointed, such as Helmut Jahn in Chicago or Britain's Will Alsop, who recently announced he was quitting the business. Gang could end up like them if her designs become cliched or extreme.

"Many architects have to confront problems that success brings—how one avoids repeating oneself and how one maintains a consistency, a red thread, that produces a body of work," notes Sheila Kennedy, Gang's thesis adviser at Harvard University, who is now an architecture professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a principal at Kennedy & Violich Architecture in Boston. "Jeanne cares about architecture, and she works very hard—it takes an enormous amount of energy to get the building industry to do something different. How does that come out in her next project? She has choices to make."

salvaged materials, lots of new business

Gang, 45, works 3 1/2 miles away from the $308 million Aqua, above an Aldo shoe store in a 1920s former bank in Chicago's hipster Wicker Park neighborhood. She moved into the two-story building in 2002. As Studio Gang Architects grew, she took over the entire second floor. True to the LEED spirit, she salvaged materials as she remodeled, forming interior walls from old doors and transoms.

Gang has a simple wooden table in the middle of her office, made by a friend in Brazil. One wall is floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with books on architecture. Atop a low-slung bookcase under a big window are three bird nests. Outside her office are open-floor workspaces for her firm's 38 employees, including her husband and the studio's managing partner, Mark Schendel. Like Gang, Schendel, 49, has a master's degree in architecture from Harvard and worked for Rem Koolhaas' Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam.

The collapse of the commercial real estate industry, which has forced such big-name architects as Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind to lay off employees, isn't evident at Studio Gang Architects. The business is on track to generate $8 million in revenue in 2009, unchanged from a year ago.

Gang, unassuming and athletically thin, with pale blue eyes, brown hair, and a quick laugh, grew up in Belvidere, Ill., then a farm and manufacturing town of fewer than 15,000 people about 75 miles northwest of Chicago. Her father was a structural and civil engineer. Her mother was a school librarian who loved to sew quilts. Gang was the third of four daughters. Their house, a two-story neo-Victorian, was architecturally insignificant.

awestruck by cliff dwellings

On family vacations in the Western U.S., she says, her father would drive out of the way to see a bridge. She also remembers being awestruck by the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, Colo., when she was 12. She was always a builder, making treehouses and forts. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1987 with a BS in architecture. After earning her master's degree in 1993, she was hired by Koolhaas. She set out on her own in 1997.

She started getting attention with her redesign of an outdoor theater at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill. To avoid weather cancellations, the college wanted to add a roof above a new 1,100-seat bowl. Gang, who had worked on a theater project in Lille, France, while at OMA, came up with a six-piece structure that would open like a flower on nice days and then seal shut, its 40-ft.-long triangular petals automatically levered tight in 12 minutes, whenever weather monitors detect approaching precipitation or winds. The $8.5 million project was completed in 2003.

While crews were working on her retractable roof, she designed a Chinese-American community center in Chicago—the three-story building is accented by a lattice sunscreen that spans the upper two floors—and, with her bird nest building, won the competition for the nature observatory/field house at the Ford Calumet Environmental Center near a Ford Motor assembly plant.

Gang got her big break in early 2004, at a dinner for Harvard alums in Chicago to hear a lecture by Gehry. Gang was seated next to Magellan's Loewenberg, whose 28-acre Lakeshore East project was filling out. He invited her to design the exterior of the Aqua tower four months later.

"a vertical landscape"

She gave him two alternatives aimed at ensuring that no two floors would be alike. One would have achieved this by allowing residents to choose their own facades. Loewenberg quickly nixed it. The hotel that would occupy the lower floors preferred a uniform look, and he worried that too many upper-floor condo owners would go with the same facade, spoiling any sense of randomness. The second is today's tower, which Gang likens to "a vertical landscape" of hills and valleys formed by the varied balconies.

Construction was a challenge. Each floor had to be custom-built. Engineers used lasers and GPS guidance to help match each contour to digital drawings on their laptops. They also found a innovative way to mold each slab. To avoid having to create literally miles of edging, crews used metal forms that sprang back to their original shape after they were removed and could be rebent, allowing them to be used again and again. Work began in 2006. The 745-unit high rise topped out this year and should be finished in 2010.

Gang's upcoming tall buildings are even more assertive. The south-facing glass wall of her Solstice condo project in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, for instance, gradually tapers in and then juts back out repeatedly; the angle of each setback is precisely 72 degrees, to avoid any direct light from the sun at its summer high point, while allowing in warmth during cooler seasons when the sun is lower.

"Jeanne intrigued me as a designer, someone who could do something that hasn't been done before, that was eye-catching, and that would make a statement," says Loewenberg. "She did her job."

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