Dialogs: Superstar Architect Jeanne Gang Explains the Art of Architectural Grafting at the Chicago Humanities Festival

Lee Bey. Photo courtesy Architect Magazine.

Spring has sprung, and the ever-eclectic Chicago Humanities Festival is flowering all over the city. Belvidere, Illinois-born architect Jeanne Gang spoke to an SRO crowd about her new book The Art of Architectural Grafting with Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey, himself an author of the recent Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side. The setting sun streamed through the impressive stained glass of the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple in the Loop.

Architectural grafting, as opposed to a tabula rasa, or clean slate, is a design philosophy aimed at upcycling existing building stock by attaching new additions (scions) to old structures (rootstock) in a way that is advantageous to both. This connects the two to create an expanded, flourishing and distinctive work of architecture. “A building isn’t a single author,” Gang said. “It’s an asynchronous collaboration so we need to find what we love about it.” Grafting as a process in horticulture and elsewhere has been traced back to ancient Rome.

Gang—a MacArthur Fellow, Time 100 Most Influential Person, Harvard design professor and founder and leader of Studio Gang (with offices in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Paris)—first shared a slide show explaining how her lifelong love of nature led her to write this eighth book about sustainable design techniques. She suggests that city planners “start with what’s there,” including natural systems and industrial materials in a post-industrial landscape. Gang is also concerned with lowering energy use during all phases of building to address the climate crisis, alongside other considerations such as migratory bird protections (check out Chicago Bird Collision Monitors to make buildings safer during migrations). “There needs to be a reciprocity between buildings and place,” Gang said.

iganStudio Gang's St. Regis Tower. Image courtesy Studio Gang.

The highest, and most high-profile, Studio Gang Chicago project is the 101-story St. Regis Tower, the world’s tallest building by a female architect., completed in 2021 and part of the Lakeshore East development. The studio also built Aqua Tower, a gorgeous 82-story, 1.9 million square foot tower on the Chicago River, completed in 2010, which is considered bird-safe and sustainable. The sexy structure, which “looks like the natural rock found around Lake Michigan,” contains a hotel, offices, condos, rental apartments, parking and one of the city’s largest green roofs. Gang utilized bio-based materials with low embodied carbon. She also designed the elegant and accessible Writers Theatre in Glencoe, and the integrated Clark Park Boathouse on the Chicago River in Roscoe Village.

She talked about other projects such as a college building in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and UC Santa Cruz structures. In her restoration and reuse projects, Gang also likes to use wood in grafting because “it’s so alive,” she said. That observation segued into her study of horticultural grafting, the process of attaching new branches to old trees that have been around for millennia, a blend of art and technique. She noted that all modern fruit trees are grafted.

Gang rehabbed the American Museum of Natural History’s Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation on its existing foundations. She’s addressing some dead ends in the original space and creating more flow for people traffic, considering reciprocity and decisions that are “in dialog with what’s already there.” The classrooms are “like water coursing through a plant” and provide lots of natural light.

The Gang gang are also addressing moving the Midwest from the Rust Belt to the “Bark Belt,” noting that much of the wood for work here is shipped from afar, mostly from the northwest and southeast, creating an unsustainable carbon footprint. After the Chicago Fire, most buildings with wood disappeared, but Chicago might be able to become a leader in the timber industry and create new jobs. “Although the best time to plant a tree is always 20 years ago,” she said.

Bey asked Gang about the retrofitting of the “silver spaceship” addition on top of Soldier Field. “It is technically grafting,” she said. “But it doesn’t follow my rules.” She reiterated the waste that accompanies full building teardowns, and tracked the role of architectural obsolescence, a term Gang says was coined in Chicago during the early 20th century.

Lincoln Park Zoo Nature Boardwalk (inspired by milkweeds) by Studio Gang.

Asked about the uptick in Chicago’s vacancies, foreclosures and abandoned properties post-COVID, Gang mused about turning old factories into makers’ spaces or other creative reuses. She wondered if all the small bank buildings around the city are still needed in the age of digital banking, or might be converted into other uses. “Bank buildings tend to be brutalist, which architects love, though,” she said.

Incentives should be offered to owners and developers, Gang said, with policy as an important component as zoning codes would need to be rewritten as well. Bey noted that Senator Dick Durbin earmarked $52 million to tear down the Century and Consumers Building rather than rehab it. Gang also encouraged that old offices and schools might be turned into affordable housing, especially downtown, so that essential workers can live near where they work, in areas that are usually deemed unaffordable to most. “With so many new arrivals to the city, building stock availability is only going to get worse,” she said.

Innovative and prolific architect Jeanne Gang aims to take Chicago’s motto one step further, from Urbs in Horto, City in a Garden, to the city AS a garden.

Check out upcoming Chicago Humanities Festival programs, including:

History Reconsidered: Reimagining History Through Photography on 4/27

D-Composed Black chamber music on 4/27

Renee Fleming: Music and the Mind on 5/8

Ijeoma Oluo: Be a Revolution on 5/18

Doris Kearns Goodwin: An Unfinished Love Story on 5/21

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.