Internationally acclaimed Chicago architect and Studio Gang founder, known for bringing a sustainable approach to tall buildings, to receive the prestigious ULI Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.
Architect and educator Jeanne Gang, a trailblazer who draws insight from ecological systems to create striking places that connect people with each other, their communities, and the environment, has been selected as the 2022 recipient of the Urban Land Institute’s highest honor—the ULI Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.
The prize spotlights individuals and organizations that have been on the cutting edge, using innovative processes, techniques, strategies, and insights to encourage and achieve the highest quality in development practices and policies at the global, national, or local level. The prize rewards accomplishments that honor diversity of land use, design, mobility, lifestyle, population, culture, and race and that reflect an awareness of changing technologies and their impact on a sustainable future for communities.
In addition, the prize encourages developers, redevelopment planners, and community leaders to think more deeply about how urban development affects our quality of life and helps build the spirit of community and of neighborhood. It encourages innovation and creativity yet returns to the core principles of quality, beauty, and permanence.
Gang is the founding principal and partner of Studio Gang, an architecture and urban design practice based in Chicago, with offices in New York City, San Francisco, and Paris. Gang and her studio’s design process, which emphasizes research, experimentation, and interdisciplinary collaboration, have created a diverse, award-winning body of work.
Their projects range from cultural centers that convene diverse audiences and public projects that connect people with ecology, to installations that challenge material properties and high-rise towers that foster community. Notable among these are Writers Theatre, a professional theater in Glencoe, Illinois; the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan; and the 82-story, undulating Aqua Tower in Chicago.
Gang’s ongoing work includes major cultural and civic projects throughout the Americas and Europe, such as the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; a new U.S. embassy in Brasília, Brazil; the University of Chicago’s European hub for study and research in Paris; a unified campus for the California College of the Arts in San Francisco; and the new O’Hare Global Terminal in Chicago. Mixed-use towers in Toronto, Amsterdam, and Honolulu are also underway.
“The challenge with urban development today is that the cost of building major projects is so significant there often is limited appetite to take a lot of design risk,” said prize jury chairman Randy Rowe, ULI trustee, former ULI global chairman, and chairman of Chicago-based Green Courte Partners. “People want to stay with things that are perceived as being safe or ‘tried and true.’ Rather than play it safe, Jeanne has demonstrated the courage to innovate and challenge all of us with new ideas and approaches.”
As a result, Gang has created projects that are “very distinctive,” Rowe said. “And she’s also been able to put into practice many of the environmental goals that we collectively have as an industry—approaches like solar carving—and we hope that by highlighting her work it will encourage others to emulate her.”
Intertwined with built work, Gang and the studio also develop research, publications, and exhibitions that push design’s ability to create public awareness and give rise to change—a practice Jeanne calls “actionable idealism.” Studio Gang has championed innovative design strategies to improve ecological biodiversity in cities, including bird-safe building techniques and an experimental prairie ecosystem on the rooftop of its Chicago office. At the same time, Gang has challenged the status quo in professional practice by closing the gender wage gap in her company and encouraging her colleagues to follow suit.
Gang is a professor in practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, her alma mater, where her teaching and research focus on the cultural and environmental aspects of buildings’ reuse. A MacArthur Fellow and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Gang has been honored with the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award in Architecture and was named one of 2019’s most influential people in the world by Time magazine. Further accolades include Architectural Review’s Architect of the Year, the Louis I. Kahn Memorial Award, and the Marcus Prize for Architecture.
UL: How is your approach to design unique and what are your main inspirations?
Gang: [My studio and I have] a way of looking at the world where buildings are not seen as objects, but rather as facilitators of relationships. We design our projects to set up relationships between individual people—how they interact—as well as with their wider communities and the environment. We also look beyond the site boundary to see how our buildings can catalyze positive change in their cities, to make them an active part of a whole place and not just standing on their own. Architecture has to engage with the things around it and take into consideration the people who will use it and how they relate to each other and to their
A lot of times, my design inspiration comes from nature. I really love looking at ecology because it’s all about the relationships between things. Ecologists don’t just study a singular species; instead, they’re asking, how does it depend on other species and other surrounding elements? That’s my foundational way of looking at the world.
What role do smart building technologies play in your designs?
I think about all technologies in buildings in terms of long-term flexibility and how they can be updated. The overall goal is to make the building more resilient. Smart building technologies can help do that, but you also need the building itself to be smart on its own. For instance, can you open the windows yourself to adjust the climate and let in fresh air? These kinds of basic things should come first. The rest of it is a kind of plug-and-play situation. You want a building to be able to be easily updated or upgraded without having to throw away a lot of technologies when the next latest thing emerges.
The St. Regis Chicago is often distinguished as the “tallest structure designed by a woman.” At 101 stories, it surpasses the previous record holder in this category, the Aqua Tower in Chicago, also your design. Both buildings were groundbreaking for different reasons. What was your intent with each and what did you learn?
I was a little surprised when we got the commission for Aqua because, at that time, tall buildings were primarily being offered to larger, more established firms. I didn’t expect that I’d get a chance to design one at that point in my career, and I was really excited by it.
With Aqua, we wanted to create a design that would allow people to connect to the outdoors in a tall building, which was very rare at the time. We also wanted the building to provide a social experience for the people who live there, not an isolating one. In my view, it seemed lonely to live in a tall building unless you could have strong connections with your neighbors, both visual and through social spaces. In addition, I was interested in how Aqua could be more responsive to the environment—for example, by self-shading and by allowing people to get much more fresh air than what was required by code.
I learned that people love these qualities, and we’ve seen Aqua become a very social building. The residents have formed a number of community groups, like a gardening group that takes care of different plantings on the roof terrace. So I think the design has succeeded in that way.
With Aqua, I also became really interested in how balconies can play a role in mitigating wind to make tall buildings more comfortable, and how they can bring a human scale. I’ve been working with that idea ever since in different ways.
Typically, tall buildings are very heavy at the bottom because of the structure that they require. But this can make them feel very private and even unwelcoming. The design for the St. Regis is about how this very tall building can actually be a porous connector for the public realm. Everyone can walk right under it at two levels—at the ground level and at the river level—allowing you to connect between downtown, a large park, and the Riverwalk. That was a big discovery—how a tower can act as public infrastructure at the urban scale—and it’s just now fully opening.
Climate change has been called the biggest threat of the 21st century. How are you fighting climate change in your designs, and what should architects understand about the impact of their designs on the climate?
I would even go further to say that climate change is going to be the biggest threat of the 22nd century, too. It is going to be a rough ride. Because of the loss of many species that create the web of life, and because of the increased heat, flooding, and natural disasters that are going to increase in intensity, we must cap global temperature change based on the Paris Accord.
As architects, we have to do a lot of things very quickly and urgently to reduce carbon emissions from the operational standpoint. More and more, we also need to make an impact on embodied carbon by addressing a building’s materiality in addition to its energy use—what it is made of and all of the emissions produced in making it.
Therefore, one of the central things that we have to do is to take reusing buildings very seriously—whether through reinventing, adapting, or modifying them—to avoid adding more carbon to the atmosphere than we already have. This can be a really exciting design challenge, too. At the moment this practice is more common in Europe, but here in the U.S. we have a lot of building stock that’s hitting the critical 50-year mark. I really would like to see my studio and other studios do more with that.
Some of our current reuse work is on industrial buildings. For example, we recently converted a former coal-burning power plant into a fabulous rec center/student health center for Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. At the University of Kentucky in Lexington, we just broke ground on a design that will transform a former tobacco warehouse into the College of Design. These industrial buildings have interesting histories and generously scaled spaces that you wouldn’t necessarily get if you were starting from brand new.
I often use my motto “Start with what’s there” to refer to these projects, which also include expanding on existing buildings. In Little Rock, we’re close to completing a transformation of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, which is an existing campus and an important anchor for the community. There, we’re bringing new life to the museum by clarifying circulation, improving functionality, and bringing a bold new identity, setting it up for the next century. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which is similarly an existing museum campus and major civic institution, we created a design to clarify circulation, increase functionality, and create a visitor experience that’s new and super exciting. This building is called the Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, and it’s also close to opening.
With my research at the Harvard GSD [Graduate School of Design], my students and I are focusing on how to reuse concrete buildings. They’re usually considered too difficult to adapt, but it can definitely be done if you’re creative enough.
Can you talk a little about the role that building materials, from wood to concrete, play in your designs and what informs your material choices?
Each material has a way that it performs functionally: some materials like to bend, and some materials are fluid, like concrete. I like to express those aspects in my designs. But the major selection criteria for us nowadays is a material’s carbon footprint. We consider materials we can employ that are low emission, like mass timber, or low-emission concrete, which is something that’s rather new. And then we try to let those materials express their personalities in the buildings.
When I think about materials, I also think about how greenery can start to enter the building—for example, green roofs and how to make them more biodiverse, and introducing more green, healthy building systems. Vegetation and other natural systems are not conventionally thought of as building material, but they should be treated as important as the material choice.
Sixty-three percent of U.S. adults living in urban areas say that the availability of affordable housing in their community is a major problem. Yet you’re making inroads in core urban markets like San Francisco (MIRA) and Brooklyn, New York (11 Hoyt). How does your design inform affordability?
Design should be for everyone. So we start every project by thinking about how it can be the best for anyone—providing nice light, being very convenient and functional, and both beautiful and efficient.
Cities like San Francisco play a major role in defining the affordability goals and the targets for specific sites. For MIRA, we worked together with our client, Tishman Speyer, to meet the city’s goal for our site and even propose additional affordable units in exchange for a taller building. So that was a win/win. The degree to which a building is affordable is more of a civic responsibility and goal. We as the architects need to make buildings that can work well for anyone.
Urban Land’s summer cover depicts a rendering of Studio Gang’s Populus hotel in downtown Denver, Colorado, developed by Denver-based Urban Villages, the first carbon-positive hotel development in the country. Can you talk a little bit about your work on carbon-positive developments and what makes this project so unique?
Working with Urban Villages on this project has been great because they believe in making something good for the environment and advancing sustainability in all their work. With Populus, the building has a small, triangular footprint that makes it difficult to fit enough solar panels to substantially offset carbon on site. So Urban Villages thought of a creative way to help to get this project to be carbon positive: they committed to proactively planting and growing trees to offset the building’s emissions. They are thinking holistically of responsible ways to develop a new building.
We knew from the outset that Populus would be a hotel. One of the main aspects of a hotel guest’s experience is the view from your window, so we zeroed in on what the window could be. I was visiting Denver a lot at the time, quite immersed in the environment of the project, and I picked up on the shapes of the “aspen eyes” that you see on the trunks of aspen trees. That helped to shape our idea about the window for the user.
What inspired you to become an architect?
In high school, I was very interested in art and making things. But then I happened to also be very good at math and science. Architecture was a way to combine these interests in a meaningful way.
During my first trip to Europe while I was in college [at the University of Illinois], I saw the importance of architecture’s role in transmitting who we are as a culture, and how that lasts and endures. I saw it as an art form that allows us to see ourselves and to shape who we want to be. I thought of it as a
practice that is similar to visual art, but also very grounded in physics and connected to a larger
How many women were in your graduating class at the Harvard Graduate School of Design?
That’s [an] interesting question because I believe we were over 50 percent in my class at Harvard when I started. And I think that continues to be the case today.
The barriers to gender equity seem to emerge after education, when women enter the profession. We still have a lot of work to do to encourage and support women and people of color to become architects—and to stay in the profession. Architecture will be better when there are more diverse voices at the table engaged in design: it’ll make us all better practitioners. It’s where architecture needs to go next.
SIBLEY FLEMING is editor in chief of Urban Land.
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