The Gang's All There: Attention to Materials Pushes Limits of Design

Event: Experimental Architecture Series: Jeanne Gang
Location: Center for Architecture, 07.16.2008
Speaker: Jeanne Gang, AIA — Principal & Founder, Studio/Gang (Chicago)
Moderator: Saf Fahim, AIA — Design Principal, Archronica Architects, & Chair, Architecture Dialogue Committee
Organizers: The AIA New York Chapter and the AIANY Architectural Dialogue Committee

The Bengt Sjostrom Starlight Theater (left) and Marble Curtain (right).


Along with her own designs, Jeanne Gang, AIA, juxtaposed a seashell’s patterns with a computer-generated graph showing how the growing shell emits its pigments. This mathematically regular “relation to material and time,” she explained, was inexplicable until today’s technology allowed for precise analysis. Such close attention to the properties of natural materials and the power of ideas yields Studio/Gang’s approach to architectural processes that moderator Saf Fahim, AIA, identified as “the triad of materials, ideas, and process.”

Like Rem Koolhaas and other provocateurs at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, where she worked before forming Studio/Gang in 1997, Gang devotes intense attention to analyzing program requirements in the early phases of a project, and she delights in proposing solutions that others may consider impossible. Her firm’s first independent project, the Bengt Sjostrom Starlight Theater at Rock Valley College in Rockford, IL, is an outdoor theater sporting an operable roof with six triangular panels that open like an origami flower, allowing open-air performances while remaining weatherproof. Backlit porthole windows help maximize the building’s profile on a small-college budget. For some viewers, the 12-minute sequential opening of its six overlapping “petals,” repeated at the beginning and intermission of each event, often upstages the performances.

Gang was one of four architects selected for the National Building Museum’s Masonry Variations Exhibition in 2003, and curator Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, assigned her the charge of working in stone. A floor with limited weight support complicated the structural requirements. Gang’s solution was to hang from the vaulted ceiling a network of catenary-curved chains of translucent, 3/8-inch-thick marble, cut by water jets into 660 different puzzle pieces designed to distribute stresses. Along with dissolving the conceptual border between rigidity and fluidity, the Marble Curtain tested how stone behaves in tension rather than compression, an area where data had been scarce.

Expanding into larger-scale projects, Studio/Gang has used baseball as a heuristic tool: investigations of Chicago’s stadiums, Wrigley Field, and U.S. Cellular Field (New Comiskey Park), led to both a study of urban density for the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004-05, and a new stadium plan for the U.S. Pavilion at the 2004 Venice Biennale. The design suggests informal rooftop viewing structures just beyond Wrigley’s outfield (a feature now sanctioned by Chicago’s building codes). The sporting facility would fragment its seating into separate angled-tier components distributed through an urban neighborhood.

Gang’s breakthrough project may be the hotel/residential tower Aqua, whose 82 individually sculpted floor plates will give occupants various views of Chicago while offering a topologically varied profile suggesting the Great Lakes region’s limestone outcroppings and its pools and eddies. Scheduled to open in 2009, Aqua aims to remind observers that “water and time are processes that act on the building,” as Gang noted, and that good design begins with close, thoughtful readings of the Earth.