As Studio Gang gains respect as an office that builds formally and programmatically ambitious projects, one aspect in particular has helped the firm continue to be a major force: It is an office that does its homework. Every project that the studio does is accompanied by a body of research as well as collaborations with experts often outside of architecture. “As architects, we think of our role as being that of the translator,” explained Claire Cahan, design director at Studio Gang. “Early on in the project we bring in experts from interdisciplinary fields to discuss the past, present, and future conditions of a site. Our job is to ask questions and translate ideas between disciplines.” This becomes particularly visible in projects that involve water ecologies.
After a yearlong study in collaboration with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), the studio released Reverse Effect (2011). The book explored urban and ecological implications of severing the link between the Chicago River and the Mississippi River, effectively reversing the flow of the Chicago River to its original direction (something that has actually happened three times). The book presented a new Chicago that embraced a reshaped river as part of its cultural and civic space.
“We’re interested in the intersection between built and natural environments,” said Cahan about the office’s broader vision and approach. “While building projects typically have distinct property lines and boundaries, natural systems often intersect with property lines in a fluid way. Through research, which includes conversation, mapping, and analysis, we seek to understand the natural, cultural, economic conditions far beyond a property line.”
A similar study, in collaboration with Milwaukee-based Applied Ecological Services and Edgewater Resources, looked at the 1,000-acre Milwaukee harbor. The Edge Effect master plan set out to establish a framework and logic for Milwaukee’s waterfront development. The master plan envisions relocating the current active inner harbor to
a new outer harbor, while bringing the city to the water’s edge. The process would include softening the coastline to achieve a more complete and sustainable ecosystem by learning from stable natural coastlines and reefs. This concept is already being deployed in the Studio Gang–designed improvements to Chicago’s Northerly Island, which has a similar geographic situation.