In 2010, Jeanne Gang, of Studio Gang Architects, changed the skyline of her hometown, Chicago, with Aqua, an 82-story tower. Girded by irregular thin concrete balconies, the building seems to flutter with the winds that gust off nearby Lake Michigan.
Yet Aqua’s beautiful skin is not just for show: the balconies block the sun’s rays and slice through breezes, allowing residents to venture outdoors at heights unprecedented in Chicago.
The daughter of a Belvidere, Ill., engineer, Ms. Gang, 47, spent her childhood touring bridges. This may have inspired her habit of coaxing lyricism out of rigor in many of her designs.
They include a community center with striated walls layered from odd-lot donations of concrete, and an environmental center in a former industrial site that evokes a bird’s nest with materials of scavenged steel, slag and glass.
Last week she was named a MacArthur Foundation fellow, one of a handful of architects ever to receive that $500,000 honor.
She spoke to a reporter about it by telephone from her office in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, where she works with a staff of 36, including her husband, Mark Schendel, the firm’s managing principal.
Congratulations on your prize. Forgive me for asking two questions that always go with the MacArthur announcements, but what went through your mind when you heard you had won, and how do you plan to spend the money?
When I first heard, it didn’t connect, and then I just started hyperventilating. I was thinking about all the things I’ve wanted to do and have been constantly struggling to fund. Our work has had a large experimental component.
Does this mean we’ll be seeing more marble curtains like the one you exhibited at the National Building Museum in 2003, which looked like a giant, flowing jigsaw puzzle?
We’ll be doing materials testing, for sure. And other kinds of research not supported by clients. Right now, I’m working on a book called “Reverse Effect,” which is about the Chicago River. The title comes from the fact that they reversed the flow of the river, but it also relates to unintended consequences like invasive species and flooding. The book is about infrastructure, but also about our city. What do we want our river to be?
Ideally, not always dyed green on St. Patrick’s Day. You’re best known for Aqua, a skyscraper that is not just gorgeous and practical but gorgeous because it’s practical. In one interview, you described getting the commission after chatting with the developer at an alumni function. “There’s some luck to it,” you said. “You end up sitting next to someone, eating rubber chicken.” Is this a strategy that you would recommend to other architects?
Go to all your alumni functions, yeah. Actually, that wasn’t a strategy. I think we were introduced by one of my former clients. Being there is important, being involved. Taking a position and being an activist. All those things put you into relationships with other people. It’s an ecology of meetings and issues and talents.
Your appreciation of diverse expertise would explain your recent fascination with mushrooms.
It’s really true. We’ve been having this mushroom thing in our office lately. They can take really bad chemicals out of soil. People we’re working with on a visitor center in Greenville, S.C., are using them to improve soils in different ways so we can get native plants to grow.
Two themes of your work are an infatuation with technology and a fondness for wildlife. I’m thinking of your tortoise-inspired bentwood pavilion near a pond at Lincoln Park Zoo. Also your Starlight Theater in Rockford, Ill., whose roof opens like a flower. Are these interests related or do they spring from different sources?
I’ve never been one to think about nature in a pastoral, picturesque way. I think of it as a potent force that can be harnessed. Wildlife is technology. We can completely treat wastewater using the right type of plants and design. As it becomes harder to get out of urban sprawl, suddenly you can have nature right in the middle of the city, which is exciting.
Chicago has changed enormously in the past 30 years. Architecturally, what are the best and worst things that have happened there since your childhood?
The one thing I really love about Chicago is it’s never afraid to change its identity. It was a gritty industrial city, and it became a super green city. New York is the same. Suddenly it’s full of bike paths. These are signs of resilience. The next frontier is improving the quality of life in cities.
Is there anything you miss about the old Chicago?
Nothing. It’s been growing up and filling in. I just wish I could put a belt around it and make it denser. We would be much better served with our infrastructure and walkability issues. Right now, I’m looking out my office window and seeing five lanes of moving traffic, plus two parking lanes. It doesn’t really need all that.
Chicago architects, especially those pushing sustainability, had a great advocate in former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Have you seen equal support from Rahm Emanuel’s administration?
He’s just getting started, but I speak for the architecture community in saying that everyone’s excited by the high caliber of intellectual strength there. He seems like someone who will be looking for good solutions.
What is your own home like?
I live in a relatively small apartment, because I’m never there. It’s in an early skyscraper downtown, close to the lakefront and bike paths. I’m enjoying that. For the one hour a day I get to recreate, I can go outside.
By JULIE LASKY