Towering Figure: How architect Jeanne Gang reshaped Chicago's spectacular skyline

ByTanja Babich and Megan Hawkins WLS logo
Friday, December 15, 2023
Towering Figure: How architect Jeanne Gang reshaped Chicago's skyline
ABC7's Tanja Babich sat down with world-renowned architect Jeanne Gang for an exclusive interview.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Architect Jeanne Gang's formidable list of accomplishments and accolades have cemented her reputation as one of the premier architects in Chicago and around the world.

Typically when a skyscraper is built, it's noted for its specs - its height, its visual impact. But Gang aims to check a different set of boxes.

Gang became fascinated with Chicago and its buildings at an early age. Family day trips to downtown museums and theaters are among her favorite memories. She said it was her love of art and math that inspired her to become an architect after studying at the University of Illinois and Harvard Graduate School. Later, she became founding partner of Studio Gang, an architecture and urban design practice.

World-renowned architect Jeanne Gang on her transformative Chicago work, the ethical issues facing modern architecture, and what purposes her buildings serve beyond the skyline.

When Gang designed the Aqua Tower on the Chicago River, it was, at the time, the tallest building in the world designed by a woman. She has since beaten her own record with the construction of the St. Regis Chicago, where the river meets Lake Michigan. But her buildings' specs aren't nearly as important as the purpose her designs serve.

"It's kind of a reason why we practice architecture; it's to have a positive impact on the world," she said.

We're needed right now to do these things, so we can't let ourselves quit

Gang said the act of building - a skyscraper, access to water, relationships with community - is what drivers her vision. At her core, she's a problem solver.

"I'm a creative person, so those are the things that I like to figure out and bring to the world," Gang said.

Today, nature and community drive the architectural designs that have won Gang acclaim, and some of her best work is in Chicago.

"One of the things we've been working on testing and implementing is different ways to make the glass visible to birds," she said. "So, for example, the Aqua Tower does that through the visual complexity."

The newly constructed St. Regis uses the same technology. And on the ground below, Gang is deliberate about using absorptive surfaces and green spaces to keep heavy rain and snow melt from overwhelming the city's wastewater system.

Meanwhile, a pass-through at the base of the skyscraper ensures the Chicago River is easily accessed by all.

"Once you see how great it is to have a city on a river and be able to enjoy it through boating or, you know, just hiking along the river's edge or fishing (or the many other things that people do along the river), it makes you appreciate it and want to care about it. And that's really what's going to change the water quality overall," she said.

Gang also sees environmental and social inequity as the two major ethical issues facing architects right now.

The action part is really getting it done. Not just leaving it as a study in a book, but trying to make it happen

The latter was at the center of a project in Lawndale, in which Gang's team proposed, funded and constructed a basketball court in the parking lot of a police station. The amenity encourages interaction between officers and members of a community that has grown distrustful of policing.

"The action part is really getting it done. Not just leaving it as a study in a book, but trying to make it happen," Gang said.

And she said there's no better time than the present to get to work.

"We're needed right now to do these things, so we can't let ourselves quit, is my take on it," she said.

You can hear more about Gang's views on how architects can help cities struggling with population decline and crime through affordable housing, gender and pay equality within her own firm and more in the extended version of this discussion featured at the top of this page.