In the male-dominated field of architecture, successful women architects are rare indeed. Women have always designed their own working and dwelling spaces, but in America, the attention has gone to large scale high-rise buildings that have been, for the most part, designed and built by men. For example, women were largely responsible for the homes and farms of the 19th century, and in the 20th century, women worked behind the scenes in architectural firms of the early to mid 20th century.
It wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century when women finally got attention for their design work. One of these women, Jeanne Gang, is also one of the few women who founded her own architectural firm, Studio Gang, in 1997. In 2007, Gang Studios designed the construction of Chicago’s Aqua Towers, the largest project awarded to an American architectural firm headed by a woman. The 82-story mixed-use skyscraper, which reaches 819 feet (250 meters) and includes six below-ground levels of parking, is also Gang’s first skyscraper project, a huge accomplishment for a young woman leading a young firm.
What makes this accomplishment even more significant is it was done barely twelve years after she founded her firm. The construction of the Aqua is huge not only in its scale—one of the largest skyscraper in Chicago, the birthplace of the skyscraper, but in the impact it is sure to have on Gang’s hometown. In actuality, Gang grew up in Belvidere, Illinois, 75 miles northwest of Chicago. She went to college in Chicago, though, at the University of Chicago at Urbana-Champaign. She also attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where she has been a visiting professor) and worked in Europe.
Chicago has been where Gang has made her mark as an architect, however. As renowned architect Stanley Tigerman has said about Gang, she is “very much a Midwestern architect.” He says that unlike most Ivy-League trained architects; there is little frivolity about her work. Instead, her designs are all about structure and construction. Her work is rational, but poetic at the same time. She takes risks with structure—how things are made—and how the materials she uses influences the building’s form. Tigerman believes it goes beyond gender, further stating about his friend, “She has immense courage, therefore she’s as good an architect as they get, gender notwithstanding, because I don’t know a lot of guys that have the balls to do what she does.”
As a native of the area, Gang intimately understands Chicago and is therefore able to design buildings that embody its neighborhoods. Architecture in Chicago, one of its most important American centers, had become complacent in the previous twenty years before she set up shop there. She believes that entire neighborhoods in Chicago had been passed over architecturally, and that there were whole pockets of untapped potential in the city. As a result, instead of working in New York City, she chose to return to Chicago to influence her field in a big way.
Studio Gang’s community center for SOS Children’s Village, a nonprofit that provides housing and social services to foster families on Chicago’s South Side, is an example of her firm’s commitment to reaching untapped potential. The center is located in a tough neighborhood next to a railway overpass. Gang’s goal was to introduce the life-changing forces of architecture into an area that hadn’t necessarily been exposed to it in the past. It worked, for she won the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Awards, which recognizes excellence in community design in Chicago, in 2009.
Thanks to female architects like Jeanne Gang, women are no longer constrained to designing family homes, although like the women architects of the past, Gang is making a huge contribution to the spaces that people work in and dwell. Her designs of two major Chicago buildings demonstrate that she is carrying on the tradition of women architects making a profound affect not only on her field, but upon her physical surroundings.