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Redesigning a River: Architect Jeanne Gang

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Whether she sought the position or not, Jeanne Gang has risen to the tier of American “celebrity architects,” a rarefied community of building designers whose work commands national praise and attention. Of her most famous project -- the 82-story Aqua apartment tower in her hometown of Chicago -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in The New Yorker: “It reclaims the notion that thrilling and beautiful form can still emerge out of the realm of the practical.” The design of that skyscraper -- with its irregularly shaped balconies stacking and combining in such a way as to suggest rippling fabric, or the surface of a pond after a pebble has been tossed into it -- helped earn Gang a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2011. She was the first architect to win one in over a decade.

Gang considered a career in engineering before deciding on architecture; ultimately her focus, regardless of the project, is on the solving of problems. Those undulating balconies, for instance, aren’t simply there to make street-level gawkers stop in their tracks (and they certainly do). As gorgeous as they are, they’re serious energy savers. The built-in concrete shades help cool the apartments below them and do double-duty as protection from fierce winds that typically buffet buildings of that height. The design saves massive amounts of money and materials that would otherwise need to supplement the construction.

One of Gang’s most exciting projects, however, is still in the theoretical stages. If it ever comes to pass, the project will have a profound effect on Chicago and on three bodies of water -- the Chicago River, Lake Michigan, and the Mississippi River --  that are crucial not only to the city, but to the larger Midwest region, and indeed, the entire country.

In an admirable effort to reduce Great Lakes pollution in the late 19th century, civil engineers actually reversed the flow of the Chicago River, which originally emptied into Lake Michigan. Today, instead of stoically accepting the Chicago River’s dirty outflow, Lake Michigan releases a billion gallons of water per day into the river. Unfortunately, that simply means that the city’s pollution now runs the other way -- toward the Mississippi River watershed, where it eventually makes its way downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. Since most of the Chicago Riverfront has historically been zoned for industrial use, Chicagoans resigned themselves long ago to the fact that this waterway, which cuts through the heart of their city, is little more than an escape route for runoff and effluvia -- a fact that was grimly acknowledged in the naming of “Bubbly Creek,” a section of the river beside the city’s notorious meat-packing district that became a watery grave for livestock remains.

In her book Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways, which grew out of a year-long collaboration with NRDC, Gang details how a plan to place a permanent barrier in the Chicago River -- between the Great Lakes system and the Mississippi River watershed with which it now connects -- could solve a number of problems at once. It could stop the recent invasion of Asian carp into Lake Michigan, where the ravenous fish are sure to wreak havoc if they ever fully establish themselves. The barrier could ameliorate troublesome flooding and pollution that have chronically plagued the Chicago River, which still roils with sewage and runoff after heavy rains. And it could revivify a beloved city symbol, returning the long-neglected river to citizens -- and making it, finally, into a destination that Chicagoans can use and enjoy.

Jeanne Gang spoke to me recently from the offices of Studio Gang, her architecture firm in Chicago.

How did the proposed project that you outline in Reverse Effect come into being?

I’d been working with people from NRDC for a long time. One day we did an eco-salon here at our studio, talking about all of our green projects. I got to talking with some people from NRDC about the invasive species issue: about the carp that are heading toward the Great Lakes up the Chicago River. They told me that they were studying the benefits that might come from placing a dam in the river, establishing a barrier between the Great Lakes watershed and the Mississippi River basin. My curiosity was sparked: I thought it was a great opportunity to think not only about the barrier itself, but also what the act of creating it could mean for the city and its future.

What kinds of benefits were you imagining at that point?

The issue of the invasive species is one thing, but there’s also the issue of water quality -- the fact that we’re still putting raw sewage into our waterways. Even though they’re trying to expand our city’s deep-tunnel sewer system, the capacity of that system isn’t great enough to handle the rain; it just isn’t able to keep up. With very little rainfall -- barely over half an inch -- we have a situation where we’re sending runoff directly into the river and lake. And with climate change, this will get even worse. We’ll have stronger storms in shorter amounts of time.

And then another issue was really just the feel of the riverfront. It’s post-industrial; much of it is now just sitting there, abandoned and unused.

Along with the barrier, what can be done to improve the quality of water in both the river and the lake?

One of the most important things for improving water quality would be to reduce runoff by putting in a lot more green infrastructure, so that you could absorb that much more rainwater and not just flush it into the sewer system, which then becomes overwhelmed.

Eventually, as steps like this and others started taking place, the river itself would be remediated and cleaned. Ultimately what we want to do is not keep wasting the water that’s coming out of the lake and flushing it down to the Mississippi. It’s exciting; it’s really a new way to think about the relationship between these three bodies of water. Instead of thinking of the Great Lakes with these canals coming off that are taking water out of the lakes and down to the Mississippi, we’d be capturing the water, using it, then cleaning it first with technology and further by charging it into a series of wetland lagoons, and then letting it go back to the lake. Which would be amazing, if you think about what that could mean for the quality of life in the city in the future.

How could your plan improve the quality of life for Chicagoans?

For one thing, just increasing access to the river would be huge. It’s not in the greatest, most pristine condition right now, but I think it’s really important to give people a chance to care about the river. If they can’t get to the edge, because it’s in private hands, how can they care about it? Our plan would call for reinvigorating the area of the riverfront by cleaning it up and creating these wetland lagoons, and also adding a harbor. Big boats coming off the lake into the Chicago River, toward downtown, would have a new destination; smaller boats that just wanted to row up and down could launch from there. Also, installing this barrier could create an opportunity to connect the two opposite sides of the river, two neighborhoods that have never been physically connected, in the form of a bridge.

The idea of “creating” a natural filtration system with the aid of green infrastructure like wetlands is undoubtedly a complicated one, logistically and practically speaking. But conceptually it’s quite simple. Do architects and urban planners sometimes overlook simple solutions in favor of the newest, most whiz-bang technological ones?

What people like to hear about are new inventions, new technologies -- those are what get talked about more often. The basis of all our designs at Studio Gang is: What are the easiest, cheapest, and most implementable solutions? We start with that question, and with the goal of trying to reduce basic energy use. Before you introduce mechanisms for creating renewable energy, for example, first you need to concern yourself with just getting the basic energy-use factor down, through how you design the building.

Such as?

There are some great, tried-and-true solutions. Number one being just the orientation of the building -- if you’re lucky enough to have control over that. (And you don’t always have control over that in a city.) You can reduce energy load just by how you site the building, and the way that you shade from the sun or let the sun in. You have to look at the climate that you’re dealing with and then find out what the cheap -- or even free -- age-old solutions are.

That makes me think of your plan for a large residential building in Hyderabad, India, which takes advantage of local materials that have been used for thousands of years.

A thorough examination of what people have already done is always illuminating -- and exciting, actually. For Hyderabad we realized that we could use material directly from the site, this clay-like material that’s literally right there, and then use a compressed block press to make bricks that don’t require firing. They just air-dry, but they have a very high compression rate, so they’re really strong, and you could just set up a workshop right there on the site. You can significantly reduce the carbon that’s going into the building by employing a material like that.

Not to mention the carbon-reduction benefit that comes from not having to ship materials from hundreds of miles away in trucks.


For the Ford Calumet Environmental Center, a proposed community center in an industrial corner of Chicago, you showed a similar inclination to use recycled and/or locally sourced materials.

That’s a really interesting site -- it combines a much older industrial heritage with a degree of still-live industry, so there are lots of opportunities. A lot of slag -- which is a byproduct of making steel -- moves through the Calumet area, as do other heavy materials. So on the one hand it’s pretty industrial, but at the same time it also happens to be this really important habitat for migratory birds, because it has these natural river wetlands.

And thinking about those birds got us wondering: “What can we use from around here to make the building? To make the building more like a bird’s nest -- using things that are available nearby?” So all of the materials for the building were conceived as things that we could source extremely locally, like from within a four-mile radius of the building. Slag is used in the terrazzo floors; we have acoustic material made out of recycled denim, from old blue jeans!

In all the projects you describe, from the Chicago River barrier and waterfront clean-up, to Aqua, to Hyderabad, to the Ford Calumet site, I sense a pattern: simple ideas can yield big payoffs.

What I love about the idea of the river barrier, for example, is that it’s a small thing, really -- just a piece of infrastructure -- but it has such large implications: for the neighborhoods around it, the city at large, and the entire waterway. By doing something very local and even very small, you can have this great impact. I think the architects of the future are going to be much more involved with these types of problems -- not just designing one building at a time. They’re really going to have to think about how all these things are connected.

image of Jeff Turrentine
Jeff Turrentine is OnEarth's articles editor. A former editor at Architectural Digest, he is also a frequent contributor to Slate, The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications.