Art Institute ‘Gang[s]’ up with contemporary architect

By Alex Stedman

From the Willis Tower to the Wrigley Building, Chicago’s architectural marvels and the people who design them are world-renowned. Even though Columbia’s Media Production Center, 1600 S. State St., isn’t historically significant, one of its most prominent designers is being recognized in an exhibition at the Art Institute.

“Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects,” which opened Sept. 24, features the work of Chicago architect Jeanne Gang and her team and gives attendees a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into producing her designs. Gang is most famous for conceptualizing Chicago’s Aqua Tower, 225 N. Columbus Drive, the tallest building in the world designed by a woman.

“[Gang] has such a huge fan base in Chicago and so many supporters behind [her],” said  exhibit co-curator Karen Kice. “[The exhibition] lets people see her work at a different perspective.”

The exhibit highlights 13 projects organized around four recurring themes in Gang’s work: “Building Nature” features environmentally conscious designs, “Building Performance” examines practical urban revitalization, “Building Community” focuses on fostering social relationships and “Building Density” centers on accommodating a growing urban population.

The Art Institute commissioned four “rope rooms” for the exhibit, in which intertwining ropes hang from the ceiling and divide the exhibit into sections. The idea was inspired by the Kaohsiung Maritime Cultural and Pop Music Center in Taiwan, which has a knot-like structure that is explored in “Building: Performance.”

“Oftentimes, an idea or something that feeds an idea happens in the beginning or midproject, and one project leads to the next,” Kice said. “[The exhibition] shows how projects are built [and] maybe how research from one project can go into another.”

Interactive iPads in one of the rooms document the building process of many of Gang’s projects, including Columbia’s MPC, which is featured in “Building: Community.” Content on the iPad details the building’s construction.

Kice said the exhibit’s main goal is to explore the design and building processes. Initial sketches, blueprints and paintings of the finished buildings show the step-by-step tools used in architectural design. Visitors can look at in-depth models of the buildings, complete with miniature trees and people.

“Building: Nature” is explored in particular depth because architects have a growing concern about the impact their work has on the world, Kice said.

“[Gang] really sees architecture as something that can highlight or frame [environmental] issues because you need to have access [to], or even awareness of, something to care about it,” she said.

Kice said the Art Institute chose to showcase Gang because of her firm’s impact on the city. Bastiaan Bouma, manager for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago, said Chicago has led the way in architecture for more than a century, and Gang’s design achievements help reinforce that reputation.

“I think her work helps to continue the message that Chicagoans care about architecture, and that is reflected by the buildings that developers choose to construct in this market,” he said.

The architecture community has reacted positively to the exhibit, according to Kate Keleman, associate curator of the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

“By showing the many iterations behind each design, who was involved and what the goals were, I think those are very revealing and inspire people to learn about the backstory behind not just Gang’s buildings, but all buildings,” Keleman said.

While much of Gang’s past work is featured, Kice made it clear that the exhibition is all about the complicated process behind designing a building.

“[Architecture] is something you experience every day,” Kice said. “[It’s about] understanding how these ideas are engaged to make the physical space you experience, a different side of architecture than what you typically see.”

“Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects” runs through Feb. 24, 2013, and is included with general admission to the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave.