Opening the glass door to the architecture galleries in Renzo Piano’s wing at the Art Institute of Chicago to visit Inside Studio Gang, visitors see four rope constructions hanging from ceiling to floor. White rope, like sailors use, laced up and down around metal hoops create circular spaces with see-through rope “walls.” This is architecture, like the early architecture of woven textile walls, and it’s always good to see real architecture and not just its representations in an architecture show. These “Rope Rooms” tell us immediately that Studio Gang Architects is about making, and research, and pushing traditional forms into higher performance. Because these oversized intellectual macrames are round with colorfully painted tree stump stools or rope benches inside of them, we also understand intuitively that we are to gather in them, to converse, to collaborate, to appreciate each other. If SGA wants its work to bring people together to improve the world, it knows it will do so in small steps.
This exhibition does not tell you the story of Jeanne Gang. She is too young for that, not even fifty, and probably too modest. Instead it's a snapshot of what the firm is thinking about now. Curators Zoë Ryan and Karen Kice of the Art Institute want to show us a contemporary architect at a pivotal point in her career: how she researches and collaborates with scientists, historians, artists, landscape architects, and other relevant thinkers, even before letting her architectural imagination start to whir. But this requires too much reading and inferring for most of the general public to apprehend. Would that Inside Studio Gang were wrought more like the Bravo television interview program Inside the Actor’s Studio, in which you hear stories you can never forget, and you’re excited to learn how a creative mind works and develops ideas. Architecture exhibitions ought to tell more stories, more clearly.
Courtesy Studio Gang
The latest chapter of the story of Jeanne Gang would tell us that while working very diligently on several successfully realized projects over the past year, she and Mark Schendel—her partner in life and in the firm—also gained time to breathe deeply and think about what is truly important to them. They owe that luxury in an architect’s life to a bad economy and to—good timing—the fact that last year “genius” Gang received a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship. She told me the award puts pressure on her to produce excellent work.
SGA designed this exhibition, and with the curators framed four major issues facing contemporary architecture. They are listed on the walls as “Building: Nature, Density, Community, and Performance.” A datum line of sketches, drawings, photographs, plans, budgets, and renderings runs along the wall and unites the sections. Models complete the presentation. Each section shows about four projects.
In the “Nature” section we see the Northerly Island Framework Plan, a scheme which would transform a man-made island in Lake Michigan in Chicago, into a “living ecosystem…to encourage wildlife to occupy it.” Here, what Gang leaves to nature, and does not build, is most important.
In “Performance” we find the project for Writer’s Theater in a Chicago suburb. As actors perform, so too do architects, buildings and even places.
“Community” shows us the low-cost SOS Children’s Village Community Center. We see that the project depended on community members to donate goods and services.
Courtesy Studio Gang; Steve Hall/Hederich Blessing; Butler V. Adams
In “Density” we get Solar Carve, going up in Manhattan, a box with a lower edge carved off and faceted so sunlight shines on strollers nearby on the elevated High Line. Research determined a better approach than New York’s tradition of stepping back buildings at the top. Architecture for the users, and for the neighbors.
In this section we finally meet Aqua. The tower that brought SGA great international press. Its rippling facade makes for jaw-dropping photographs, but Aqua is not the star of this show. Gang will be known for so much more. Nearby stands a plank holding a virtual skyline of models of un-built towers, Aqua’s progeny, showing where new research leads the firm.
We enter the second room through a space, showing on the left birds flying into glass buildings and dying and on the right Gang’s solution, a frame in front of the glass. You know what they say: Happy birds, happy architect.
In the back room we’re shown “Ideas.” This gallery tries to replicate the genuine Studio Gang, only four miles northwest. We can sit at a large round worktable, surrounded by pin-up boards, full-scale mock-ups, construction drawings, and material samples. Of course, it doesn’t capture the vitality I’ve felt at the real SGA. Maybe architects should open their studios to the public more often.
This room will hold Archi-Salons, to put SGA’s work in the larger field of discourse. And the sharp and well-meaning architects from the 40 employees of SGA will be in the gallery to talk with visitors. They speak with excitement of work like the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College. This gallery shows a mock up of the low-carbon, highly insulating traditional wood masonry walls SGA is using there. Also here is a brick-making machine for a tower with courtyard in Hyderabad.
Viewers of the exhibition, however, never really get completely Inside Studio Gang. The firm is too nimble to be caught in a snapshot, and too collaborative to pin down. The visitor leaving the Art Institute would do well to go see the honest-to-goodness built work—at Children’s Village, or the pavilion in Lincoln Park, or anything by Studio Gang—and one’s optimism in the city is renewed. One cares, feels connected to great things, and understands that the individual can make a difference. By design, visitors become the ultimate collaborator Inside Studio Gang.