Purpose is the process

It’s not only what we design… It is what we know, it’s what we say, it’s what we take part in that frankly helps drive change.

- Jeanne Gang

The AIA National Convention began last Thursday morning in Chicago with a keynote speech by Jeanne Gang, a 2011 MacArthur Fellow award winner (the first architect “genius grant” winner in 10+ years) and founder and principal of Chicago-based Studio Gang. The Arie Crown Theater was standing room only all the way up to the balconies as still a fraction of the 20,000 (!) attendees over the weekend were able to hear Gang’s presentation on “Purpose is the process.”

I felt this statement alone an important one to share, which Gang elaborates that by aligning the design process with the crux of the urban issue at hand, it guides the designer’s purpose. To me, this design example is another case amongst countless like it of breaking down your “why do you do this?” to its core form.

Gang further posed this question, “Does architecture create social change, or is it social change that determines architecture? Social change is reliant on spatial change, and spatial change is dependent on social change to realize itself… but it’s a dialectical relationship.”

This harmonious, changing circle was resonated through Gang’s work including plans that are under construction now to revamp Chicago’s Northerly Island, previously known for its inefficient public runway space for private planes and the origin location of ‘The Power of 10′ (you know, that amazing video from high school physics class that continually zooms out to show how small we are in the universe.)

An overview of the new Northerly Island, designed by Studio Gang.

An overview of the new Northerly Island, designed by Studio Gang. (All photos below via Studio Gang.)

Northerly Island is now the largest urban aquatic restoration project in the country.

Northerly Island is now the largest urban aquatic restoration project in the country.

Gang and her team were guided by the need to utilize the 90-acre Northerly Island for people, wildlife, and habitat, and fulfill a vision to turn the prime space into a park of the future. In fact, the new Northerly Island is now the country’s largest urban aquatic restoration project with Phase I expecting completion in 2015 (more info here).

Another example that Gang delivered was the firm’s ongoing renovation of the National Aquarium in Baltimore. She jokingly added that she was “designing for porpoise,” and given my great affection for puns, this statement drove home the “Purpose is the process” keynote in a different way. The project supports the statement as Studio Gang’s design approach is to sustain a sanctuary for the dolphins the Aquarium houses and turn the aquarium into a “touch point” to the ocean, as aquariums themselves evolve into more than an entertainment venue to even more of a center for ocean and water education. Gang looked at how, for instance, 95% of the ocean floor remains unmapped and that 2% of the ocean is protected (mind-boggling numbers) and designed the Aquarium in mind as a visitor serving organization to bring ocean issues like this to the patrons’ forefront (more info here).

A rendering of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, as the Studio Gang update is planned for competition later this year.

A rendering of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, as the Studio Gang update is planned for completion later this year.

Alas, this brings me back to the quote that led this article, and it’s actually how Jeanne Gang concluded her keynote:

It’s not only what we design… It is what we know, it’s what we say, it’s what we take part in that frankly helps drive change.

What I love about this quote is that it’s a message that resonates with all of us.  It highlights Gang’s focus on the relationship between spatial and social change, and also reinforces the idea that really everything we do affects change. I liken it to the idea of what we focus our thoughts and attention on is what we attract. In these specific examples, and across their portfolio, Jeanne Gang and her studio use this energy in a specific, thoughtful, and beneficial way to create social and urban harmony.

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So, now knowing that “Purpose is the process,” what about Studio Gang’s actual process?

Well, after the talk, I happened to walk by the AIA Store where Jeanne Gang was conducting a book signing for two of her previously published books Reveal and Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects. Curious to find out more about Studio Gang and meet Gang herself, I bought the instantly striking Reveal and briefly chatted with her about Chicago and the conference.

studio-gang-reveal

Studio Gang Architects ‘Reveal’ | Signed copy from Jeanne Gang

Upon reading Reveal this week, I have gained a greater understanding of Studio Gang’s creative process (one Gang wanted to share given that “architecture has amnesia”) and how it aligns with the talk Gang gave above. In fact, Gang presents Reveal as not merely a verb, but an idea — an idea described here:

Going beyond the “how,” reveal begins to address the question of “why?”; thereby becoming an idea which recognizes that pleasure and discovery often stem from looking at the world with openness, as if we are seeing it for the first time.

- Jeanne Gang, Reveal, p. 24

This is how Gang concluded her introductory essay to the book in 2011, parallel to the ideas of breaking down the “why?” of a design issue to first and foremost guide your purpose in 2014. I believe that reveal as an idea is more than the technical design solutions and is indeed that “what we know”, that “looking at the world with openness”, and that wholesome, yet informed perspective that we can strive to apply to literally everything we do in our daily lives.

If you’re searching for inspiration and a greater understanding at the connection between design and harmony, then Reveal is a book I would suggest (that’s also not dependent on you being a design professional to enjoy.) There are a series of amazing visuals that describe the research and inspirations behind Studio Gang’s most prominent projects. You see the Ford Calumet Environmental Center, where they researched bird’s nests to see what qualities birds search for to protect themselves and applying it to the design. The 18 ft. tall Marble Curtain project, made of 620 pieces of stone, but weighing just 1500 pounds. Studio Gang explored stone as a light and thin material, opposing its traditional use as a load-barring material and exposing its transparent properties. And I would be remiss to not mention my personal favorite: Chicago’s own Aqua Tower that creates an ever-changing illusory experience of dunes and lakes formed by curvilinear balconies that reveal the inside by not solely relying on the transparency of glass. It’s only natural I let Ms. Gang have the last words:

At Aqua Tower it [reveal] acts like a map, pointing out landmarks in the city and providing habitable topography on the facade from which to see them, while at the Blue Wall Center, reveal metaphorically magnifies nature that is otherwise too camouflaged to be appreciated.

- Jeanne Gang, Reveal, p. 24

Aqua Tower | Studio Gang Architects

Aqua Tower — Emporis Skyscraper of the Year Award 2009 | Studio Gang Architects