In May 2018, almost seventy-five years after geologist Harold Fisk first mapped the sinuous, shifting courses of the Mississippi River, I watched Jeanne Gang repaint by hand the contours of the same waterway onto the wall of the U.S. Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia, the 16th International Architecture Exhibition.1 While Fisk mapped the alluvial meandering of “Old Man River” on the brink of World War II, Jeanne was drawing for the exhibition Dimensions of Citizenship in a moment when the discipline of architecture was reckoning with resurgent, rising nationalism, and violent exclusion—echoes of Fisk’s era—combined with new forms of transnational capital, media, and ecological risk.
If Fisk revealed, at a precarious moment, the ultimately fragile nature of military and infrastructural control set against the river’s far longer geological history, Jeanne’s 2018 map embraced designing within those chimeric conditions. While engineers waged battles against what Mark Twain called the “lawless river,”2 Fisk maintained that there was something to be learned from the lower strata: the ways that the ancient movements of individual grains of sand might result, millennia later, in the fertile ecology of a swamp or the collapse of a levee. Jeanne, in turn, layered together Fisk’s palimpsest of the river’s restless movement with vintage Memphis postcards (“Soulsville, USA”), activist Instagram posts (“#takeemdown901”), and oral histories of local residents, including a sanitation worker who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the city’s pivotal strike. In doing so, she seemed to argue that for architecture to serve a citizenry, the architect must constantly navigate, as if through the river’s currents, overlapping and changing contexts, past and future. This drawing captured one of the defining traits of Jeanne Gang’s approach: her ability to find the crucial moments in which layered conditions of nature, history, and culture converge at architecture—and therefore become a site of potential intervention through design.
Perhaps it should also be noted that, from what I could tell, Jeanne drew this 20 × 30-foot (6 × 9-meter) map while precariously balanced on a pile of sandbags for six hours straight, without a break. While the work itself captured the interdisciplinary breadth of Studio Gang’s practice, it also revealed something about Jeanne’s distinctive energy as an architect.
In this interview, she describes her curiosity as producing a rush of adrenaline. She finds these moments anywhere, from wrestling with the tricky detail of an exterior wall, to questioning a theory of planetary collapse, or observing the way birds collaborate on the construction of a nest—all of which are equally likely to inform the design of a future building. It is with this energy that Studio Gang, now in its twenty-second year, continues to pursue topics that are urgent and potent, even if initially unfamiliar, resisting a model of contemporary architectural practice where firms must be defined by their expertise on a specific building type or a signature aesthetic style. Instead, Jeanne’s way of “working on what she wants to,” as she says here, is both deeply collaborative—she describes Studio Gang as a band, playing to a shared beat—and also radical, in a discipline that has historically tried to fix strong boundaries around who exactly is supposed to have expertise, and about what.
Fisk’s representational magic was to synthesize 60,000 soil borings and gray-scale aerial photography into a lyrical colorway: an empirical resource whose striking aesthetics showed the Mississippi as simultaneously unknowable in scale and negotiable in its pressures. Through Jeanne’s approach, architecture also becomes an act of stitching together complex conditions and collaborators to produce, if we’re lucky, opportunities to navigate forward into a built environment that is potentially more beautiful, and maybe even more equitable.
MATTER AND MATERIALS
Ann Lui: The stories about how you tested stone in tension for the Marble Curtain installation are very intriguing to me.3 By testing to failure, it seems like two things happened. First, a major opportunity between the expected and actual capacity was revealed. Second, and maybe to me more interesting, a kind of magic or myth arose—as the project’s lead mason is quoted as saying, “Word got out we were ‘pulling stone apart’ and everyone came to watch.” What are instances when testing and experimentation helped shape a project in an important way?
Jeanne Gang: When it comes to materials, you often learn more about them when you push them to their max and break them. The Marble Curtain project was exciting because we were working with people who said, “This will never work”—those were the material scientists. But we were also working with craftworkers who were sharing their hidden knowledge, like our lead mason, Matthew Redabaugh, who taught us that you can find a stone that’ll perform well if you thump it with your knuckle and it rings like a bell. It was stunning to learn that sound was this kind of indicator. Though it makes sense because you can do the same thing with a crystal champagne glass or things like—
AL: —a watermelon.
JG: Exactly. So the engineer who ran the testing lab may have been surprised that we were able to push the stone that far, but the same type that performed best in the tests was also the one that gave the clearest ring when struck by hand.
Other examples of testing to failure… We tried to break the wood battens of the Writers Theatre gallery walk by pulling them apart—although in that test, the battens never actually failed, so at a certain point we stopped testing, for fear that the steel armature that was holding the wood in place was going to break first! For Hive, where we built giant domes out of paper tubes using a slotted connection, we conducted crush tests at Columbia University’s material testing lab. This type of construction hadn’t been tried before, so we needed to bring it to its failure point. I like to be present at the tests, if I can, to gain insight into material qualities: how they break and what they look like when they’re in that process. Admittedly, it seems like a geeky thing to do, but it’s fascinating.
AL: It seems important to you to find the gray area between material or structural failure and what you previously thought was a limit.
JG: And certain materials are so enigmatic; you just want to know more about them. Like stone. Compared to a fabricated material like the paper tubes, it’s magical, because it’s uniquely formed by weather, wind, or geologic forces. There are many types—or let’s call them species—of stone. In fact, we don’t even know how many exist. This kind of diversity is also what’s fascinating about wood. It’s about the individual grain, the knots, the amount of cellulose or lignin present in each species.
There is an Osage orange tree in the Midwest.4 Today it is treated like a weed, but its wood is nearly as strong as ipe [Brazilian walnut or Handroanthus spp.] and it’s also incredibly resistant to rot and insects. So it’s a little like steel, but it’s organic. In general, there’s so much more to be discovered about organic materials, and our industry should invest in cultivating them while continuing to reduce the negative impact of manufactured materials.
In this book, the title we gave to the family of projects that explore material in a particularly deep way is “What are you made of?” It’s phrased as a question because that’s the attitude we bring to this aspect of our process. For Stone Stories, for example, we were asking that question quite literally—what could different geologic types of stone reveal?
AL: That’s one of the things I really like about Stone Stories in Dimensions of Citizenship. It sets up a question about the agency of rocks, which becomes a theme throughout the exhibition: how they can have different material properties but also a bigger significance culturally, historically.
JG: I wonder at all the ways we are connected to rocks: I mean, the fact that we have iron in our blood is because the earth was pelted by meteorites. From that collision, rocks, in a sense, became part of us. Everything that happens on the earth’s surface in terms of biological life is a result of the specific geological underpinning. When you look at it this way, rocks are much more alive than we might presume.
AL: It reminds me of how, in Reveal, you write about William Smith’s Great Strata-Map: the sediment map of 1815.5 Studio Gang seems inspired by research like this that investigates the patterns that undergird geography, geology.
JG: The agency of material is definitely an interest that runs through so many of our projects, even in ones you might not initially suspect.
AL: In terms of scale: I love the way you’ve talked about the “nest” as a way of thinking about architecture, which you explored in depth for the Ford Calumet Environmental Center. Is there a way to think about an airport or a campus center also as a nest? If we go down to the micro-scale of iron in our blood, how far can the nest metaphor take us: to the very small or very large?
JG: Well, it’s important to say that the nest isn’t just a metaphor for the way a building looks, but also how it’s made: the process of finding things, figuring out how they can come together in an assembly, and then the construction labor itself. In terms of the “finding,” we’ve been talking a lot in the studio about how we can use more recycled materials in our projects. It’s similar to the conversation we had when designing the Ford Calumet, but now we’re asking how those ideas can be scaled up in larger projects.
For example, our design for the O’Hare Global Terminal employs a wood ceiling. To make it, we are asking ourselves if we can harvest wood that was lost to lightning, insects, or disease instead of harvesting healthy, live trees. Can the wood be milled locally by people in the Chicago region who are learning carpentry as a trade? The choice of wood and how it will be fabricated can mark this moment, ecologically and culturally.
NAVIGATING (IN) PRACTICE
AL: It’s interesting to me that your practice is so centered on material and construction, while simultaneously being very discursive. It is both conversational—it listens and responds—but it’s also didactic. Has that always been part of the DNA of the practice? Is it something that you work actively to cultivate?
JG: Yes, absolutely. At the heart of it, I think, is the desire to share a discovery. Making a discovery is exciting; it’s what drives me in this work. It might be something programmatic, or material, or a hidden story. It could also be a discovery about form that’s made during the design process. I admit that I’m more apt to share publicly the objective discoveries behind the work, rather than the more personal, artistic preoccupations. That’s because I want to articulate the things that others can use in their own practice. In architecture, thankfully, we still have an intellectual discourse, and sharing is ultimately what progresses our collective knowledge. And then there is the fact that I just really love making architecture: being in the thick of design, and then reflecting on how it came about.
AL: It seems like, in a way, it happens intuitively. The studio also always does a lot of active publications and exhibitions. It’s not as if when you started getting bigger building commissions, you stopped doing that kind of work.
JG: Oh, yeah. Are you supposed to stop doing that when you grow up?
AL: It seems like the practices that I’m interested in don’t!
JG: Probably because we feel a kind of internal surge with the sense of discovery. It’s like a dose or hit of…what do you call it? The chemical that you get when you are—
JG: Yes! Or even dopamine.
AL: That’s the magic: when you find something, right? So how do you balance exhibition and research work, building practice, and teaching? When do these avenues dovetail to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts, versus when do you feel kind of pulled apart by them?
JG: I think the best is always when these kernels of ideas that start with an exhibition or an academic studio become a real project. For me, the major project of teaching is formulating the studio—setting up the right questions before you actually start teaching it. Each time it’s a research project. Sometimes the answers are fairly immediate. Sometimes the questions percolate, and the answers are expressed in the built work later on.
In a way, you can trace many of the threads of inquiry and interest in our office through the studios I’ve taught academically. But on the other hand, research in our office sometimes sets up the academic agenda. There have been both studios and research on topics as diverse as hurricane recovery and resilience, the potential of reusing brutalist buildings from the 1970s, and imagining how design could inform marine spatial planning. That last one informed our approach to working with the National Aquarium in Baltimore as they contemplate retiring their dolphins into a sanctuary.6
In the case of our Polis Station [research] project, which asked if the design of police stations could contribute to better relationships between police and communities, the process started in our office. We exhibited this work at the first Chicago Architecture Biennial. I then brought these questions to a studio I taught at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where we explored them for a new site in East Harlem.
Much of the urban design and community engagement work that our office has done since is an outgrowth of the Polis project. You see that in Stone Stories, for example, as well as many other projects that aren’t included in this book. I’m seeing a diagram coming up in my brain…
AL: I think there could be a really interesting timeline, all the way from your early Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) studios till now. Along those lines, I wanted to ask: which teachers have inspired you? Are there people who you’ve worked with who you feel were mentors or who affected you in some way?
JG: I think it’s a very good question. In my network of teachers and architects who I’ve worked with over the years, I’ve had many great friendships and collaborators, but I’ve never had that traditional “mentorship” relationship. Perhaps you could count Stanley Tigerman, who always included me in exhibitions and invited me to teach at his school, Archeworks. In a way that was mentorship, but it wasn’t the kind of “lineage” that some architects and firms claim. Maybe it’s just me—maybe no one wanted me to be their mentee! [Laughs] But hey, being the outlier can have its advantages!
AL: Maybe the question about mentorship also comes from our outdated sense of the architect needing to be a “guru”-like figure, like a Howard Roark-type. That every architect has to be named as an heir by a previous architect. But just like nest-building isn’t a linear building practice, maybe instead you assemble the people who you want to work with and who inspire you at the moment.
JG: Yes, very much so. Maybe it’s more like an art practice. Artists don’t necessarily have someone they worked “under” in the system. When I look back on my work and my practice, the way that it has grown, it’s not modeled on tradition. Certainly, we have our architecture training and we know how to design and build projects. But the interests that have opened up certain directions for us—interests in nature, culture, social justice—are interests that we at the studio share. It’s not a standard set of criteria for organizing a practice, and it’s not consciously following an existing model. What I do know is that I just do what I want to do. [Laughs]
AL: Maybe music is a model. If you are a guitarist, you don’t then go work for the top guitarists, training with a bunch of other guitarists, right? You assemble with people you want to jam with. You create a band, right? Whose members have complementary skills.
JG: Yes, I guess that, unlike the lone artist practicing in her studio, it’s multiple artists. I’ve often thought about that; our studio is analogous to being in a band. When you create music with each other, it will never be the same as it would with different members. It could be similar, but that’s the thing [about] our “band:” it’s constantly changing, growing, and adding new people. It’s interesting to think that if you took just one person out of a project team, the project may have ended up differently. Everyone is contributing, in their own unique way.
DESIGNING IN SITU
AL: Critics and curators often situate Studio Gang in Chicago’s architecture history—which always seems like a bit of a Rorschach test. Stanley Tigerman saying Studio Gang fits very squarely into the legacy of the Chicago School;7 Brett Steele writing about Burnham and the lineage of “big plans;”8 Zoë Ryan and Karen Kice’s invocation of discursive practices;9 or Peter Cook’s interview, where he cites European immigrant grittiness in contrast to your work.10 How do you see Studio Gang’s work within Chicago’s architecture history? Does Studio Gang intervene in, change, or make new roads for that narrative?
JG: I would hope that we are making new roads. Though clearly our close attention to material as a driver for architecture is squarely in the vein of the Bauhaus, whose influence came to Chicago via Mies van der Rohe. We usually choose a material early on because we want to work with it, not against it, to achieve a formal idea. We work in a similar way with nature by bringing the site’s ecology and climate into the design conversation right away. I’d say that’s the new vein we’ve begun in Chicago. We’re bringing a broader idea of who uses buildings—in addition to diverse people, thinking about all the other life forms that are present—and how architecture can fit into the environment at multiple scales, connecting with natural systems that extend beyond the footprint of the building. It’s a much more ecologically driven approach.
AL: On one hand, I would say most people would not associate that way of thinking with the Chicago School. But on the other, given William Cronon as a reference, the city has always been a nexus at these different industrial and ecological systems, even if Mies didn’t necessarily reckon with that.11
JG: I suppose he did in a certain way, in that he adopted steel—a material intrinsic to Chicago—as part of this industrial aesthetic. William Cronon brings out the overlap of industry and ecology so well in Nature’s Metropolis, but I don’t know how many architects have previously expressed it, or express it now, or even think about it in their work here.
AL: Or are actively trying to engage it. It also seems Chicago is a place that, despite its history of segregation, also has a history of diverse assemblies, where people negotiate difference through activism or other methods. Studio Gang seems to do this too. How does architecture make new kinships or alliances or bring people together as part of bigger networks?
JG: I think an architectural project provides the frame for people to come together. In our office, we’ve always brought in a range of collaborators; you assemble the right team for the project, which can often include experts from outside the traditional design fields. We’ve been lucky to work with brilliant engineers and landscape architects as well as ecologists, artists, policymakers, journalists. More and more, we are also bringing community leaders and residents to the table so that their knowledge and vision can shape a project. They help us see opportunities that we could never identify on our own. We don’t just want to go into a neighborhood and drop a building. We want to create architecture that’s adopted by people and becomes part of community life—places where people want to be, not just buildings. To do that, you need to understand who you’re designing for and how your project can fit into the wider network of relationships that make up a place, socially and ecologically.
I think there needs to be a certain level of flexibility in design, but not too much. A space has to be able to be changed in response to different users’ needs and different situations that you can’t predict. But it also has to have a vibe that’s strong enough to attract people to it, to make them want to be there.
I don’t necessarily want to use the word “beauty” to describe that quality, but there is definitely something about beauty that draws us to architecture, just as it does in nature. At our studio, beauty is not the first topic we discuss during the design process, but maybe that’s because it’s arrived at through design craft and iteration. It’s also more instinctive—you know it when you see it. And it is key to inducing many different people to use and to adopt a space.
AL: That tension about the agency of architects reminds me of when someone asked Lina Bo Bardi, how can architects serve all people and not just the rich? She answered, “The question is beautiful, but it is also a little naive. Architects, like other professionals, depend on the country’s socioeconomic structure. In order to change, one needs to make a revolution.”12 You’ve talked about the architect as an activist and also as an advocate. Does this still have meaning for you?
JG: Maybe Lina thought that what she was doing wasn’t revolutionary, but in retrospect, she really did change things. Lina found ways to bring people together across economic divides. She embraced the local techniques of people in the country that she adopted as her home. At the same time, she harnessed the wealth of her clients toward funding projects for everyone, not just the rich. So she was indeed changing things: through big leaps as well as incremental measures.
There is some truth to her revolution comment, though, because you could say that the change we are making is not enough or fast enough. Especially now, as climate disruption is getting out of hand, while simultaneously a social and political and economic gulf continues to grow between people. What are architects supposed to do, just make our buildings more and more “green?” We can certainly make incremental change. But can we change the entire system? It’s a very important and a very challenging question.
I still have hope for the planet. I do. But it’s increasingly falling out of balance. The challenges are so great that we would need to mobilize all architects in order to take it on. It would mean changing so many things about our way of operating. Certainly this can seem insurmountable. But it’s along the lines of what I said earlier, about making practice what you want it to be. You can merge your ideals with your practice. Why not? It’s up to you, isn’t it? When you build a practice, it’s not just you who’s doing it; it’s not a top-down process. You can surround yourself with people who have similar ideals, and through opening yourselves up to the questions you want to pursue and the other people you want to work with, you change together.
AL: adrienne maree brown recently published a book called Pleasure Activism, where she argues that in an unfree world, activism should emerge from love, that pleasure in oppressive conditions is often a radical act in and of itself.13 I think hearing you talk about being really in love with doing architecture, despite having felt like an outsider, and wanting to share discoveries with people—that seems like something already. To be in love with the work seems like a way to start.
JG: Yes. And wanting to do, to make a difference. That’s something I think we all want. When our office has taken up an advocacy cause, or worked toward having a positive effect in our community, other people are interested and want to know more about it. I think there are a lot of people who want things to change and they’re trying to figure out how to do it.
Maybe it’s not always pleasurable. When we were working on the Polis Station project, it certainly wasn’t pleasurable to confront the trauma around communities’ relationship with the police. Or to confront my own privilege as a person who inhabits the same city but whose experience is completely different. But the conversations that came out of the project, with all the people who we spoke with: I grew from it and I think everyone who engaged with it grew from it.
One subject that really moves me is environmental justice. It connects environmental issues with human issues, showing how the urgency of changing our relationship with the planet is also a matter of justice: changing our relationship with each other.
We once hosted a great speaker at our office who’s a leader in the grassroots movement to fight pollution on Chicago’s Southeast Side.14 This is the same community we became acquainted with back in the early 2000s through our Ford Calumet Environmental Center. They’re not only fighting against polluters, they’re also advocating for green jobs training and green industry. They see the future they want for their community and they are making great progress toward achieving it.
Of course it’s not only in Chicago, but around the world that the people who bear the brunt of environmental pollution are often the most economically vulnerable; they’re also the Luiones most likely to be affected by climate change. To find a way to be on their side through design feels urgent to me, and I continue to want to be working in this space.
AL: There’s an Eames diagram with three overlapping circles with their work in the middle: the interests of the architect, the needs of the client, and value to society as a whole.15 Do you feel like you are able to find a happy medium of those spaces or are they increasingly in tension?
JG: It’s a great diagram, but you really have to work to provide those intersections. You can very easily spend all your energy designing, managing, and finishing projects in order to make them great. It is also an intentional part of our practice to devote energy to thinking about where we can bring social and environmental issues forward. Sometimes you’re just absorbing the current circumstances around your work, and then suddenly it dawns on you: we need to do this! The question that’s always going on in the back of my mind is, how can we bring our skills, and the greater goals we want to accomplish, to the projects that we want to do?