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How Jeanne Gang Works

The local architectural legend takes a tour through her recent work—past, future, and speculative—finding influence in turtle shells, basements, and the palette of Chicago.

An image from Jeanne Gang’s recent talk about where she finds inspiration for her work.  

Recently Jeanne Gang returned to the Harvard School of Design—she’s a 1993 graduate—to talk about her recent projects, both real and speculative. If you’re unfamiliar with her work, the talk is a great introduction, in particular what Studio Gang is doing with Northerly Island.

What wasn’t familiar to me was her new building for Kalamazoo College’s Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, so I got to watch her walk through the process of designing a building that I’d never seen. And she began with an interesting question: what are the physical spaces of “social justice"?

Well, they’re kind of boring, architecturally. They’re basements. They’re “usually pretty invisible,” Gang says, showing a picture of the church basement in Birmingham where Martin Luther King organized. And that’s where they had to start from. From there, she brings in Arab Spring protests and meeting rooms from other cultures and times—building outward from small, enclosed spaces to an open, central space organized around a hearth and kitchen, and finally to a building with neither front nor back, reaching out to the rest of the campus.

And there are lots of interesting details, like how turtle shells influenced their design for the Lincoln Park pavilion; how Studio Gang developed a color palette from Chicago’s buildings, and the one thing she wanted to happen with the Aqua Tower that didn’t and how she’s bringing that piece to her new building in Hyde Park.

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