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Chicago architect Jeanne Gang named ‘genius grant’ winner

Jeanne Gang | Phocourtesy John D.   Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Jeanne Gang | Photo courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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Updated: November 30, 2011 12:18AM

Shortly after she received a phone call informing her that she was among this year’s 22 MacArthur Fellows — a recipient of the prestigious, much-coveted “genius” award that comes with $500,000 in no-strings-attached support over the next five years — Chicago-based architect Jeanne Gang was deeply engaged in what she loves doing most.

She was in New York, working on “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” a project with the Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University aimed at devising imaginative new approaches to the rebirth of American cities and suburbs plagued by foreclosures. Collaborating with a housing advocate, a landscape designer, a writer and a financial specialist, Gang homed in on how “inner ring suburbs,” which frequently serve as immigrant gateway cities (think Cicero), can be turned into “the next sites for economic growth” through innovative plans for mixed living and working.

“Our ideal of urbanism is constantly changing,” said Gang. “Architecture can provide the spark of recovery. But my job, even more than building things, is to be one step ahead, and to imagine what might come next.”

Gang, 47, the principal and founder of Chicago’s Gang Studio, is best known for Aqua, the 82-story mixed-use tower on North Columbus Drive recognized by its undulating, wavelike facade. Completed in 2010, the building is the largest project ever awarded to an American firm headed by a woman, and it has been praised for its “sustainability,” including its rainwater collection systems, energy-efficient lighting and vast green roof.

A passionate advocate of ecologically sustainable technology, Gang also has created the design for the Ford Calumet Environment Center, which would be devoted to enhancing the Calumet area just south of Chicago, and educating the public about its industrial, cultural and ecological heritage. Gang’s design, envisioned as a 27,000-square-foot “resource center,” was selected from a competition that drew 120 entries. Though widely praised (her plan includes the use of salvaged materials from the area, the incorporation of advanced systems in heating, cooling and water reclamation, and access to nature trails), it has still to find financing.

The daughter of a civil engineer dad and a mom who worked as a librarian and had an interest in crafts, Gang grew up in Belvidere and visited Chicago often as a child. Good in math and art, she was the only girl in her high school’s drafting class. She graduated from the University of Illinois, earned her master’s degree in architecture at Harvard, and spent five years living and working in France, Switzerland and the Netherlands before returning to Chicago and founding her own firm.

“Being named a MacArthur Fellow is such a vote of confidence, and so energizing,” Gang said. “There are many aspects of research and experimentation that are not funded by clients, so now I will be able to make time for that.”

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