The gritty 10th Police District on the West Side might be the last place you'd expect to command the attention of the ever-more-prominent Chicago architect Jeanne Gang. Vacant lots pockmark rows of tattered single-family houses and apartment buildings. In the last 90 days, the district recorded more than 360 violent crimes, making it the seventh-most violent of Chicago's 22 police districts.
But on Tuesday, in an audacious attempt to address the tensions between police and African-Americans that have flared since last year's fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Gang will discuss her conceptual proposal for a new kind of police station in North Lawndale. She'll do it at a panel that's part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the eye-opening international survey of global design that runs here through Jan. 3.
The police station Gang envisions would be more like a town center than a fortress. A gym, open to the public as well as the police, would rise across the street. Cops, teachers and firefighters would live in nearby housing. Some of the parking lots around the station would be transformed into parks. The idea is to have police rub shoulders with residents, building bonds of trust. Gang calls the idea "Polis Station," a play on the word "polis," which describes an ancient Greek city-state characterized by a tightknit sense of community.
Her plan to remake the 10th District police station at 3315 W. Ogden Ave. offers a telling snapshot of the present focus and future aspirations of the still-rising, 51-year-old architect who burst into public view six years ago with the curvaceous 82-story Aqua hotel and residential tower north of Millennium Park.
Now in the bloom of mid-career, Gang's portfolio encompasses skyscrapers from coast to coast, including the planned Vista Tower, an undulating, three-tiered eye-grabber that would be the city's third-tallest building, and the City Hyde Park apartment tower. Museums are part of the mix, including the co-design of the landscape for the controversial Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and a just-unveiled addition plan for New York's American Museum of Natural History. And there's work for institutions, like the soon-to-be-completed Writers Theatre in Glencoe and a dormitory complex at the University of Chicago.
While the powerfully sculpted forms of Gang's buildings are arresting to the eye, she is not a formalist obsessed with the way buildings look at the expense of how they work. Instead, she personifies a central theme of the biennial: It's time for architects to expand their role, or "agency," to address such pressing problems as climate change and the wave of shootings that's wracking Chicago.
"I would position her as someone who's absolutely interested in the social, political and economic implications of architecture. She is interested in architecture's ability to negotiate change," said Zoe Ryan, the Art Institute of Chicago's architecture and design curator, who co-organized the museum's 2012 exhibition about Gang.
Not everyone agrees that designers should be do-gooders as well as form-makers. Another camp of architects wants to seize on the opportunities afforded by computer-generated "parametric" design to create radically fluid shapes. Shortly after the biennial opened, that camp's most vocal spokesman, Patrik Schumacher, director of London-based Zaha Hadid Architects, wrote on Facebook that architects "have now en masse dedicated themselves to doing good via basic social work."
Gang effectively straddles this divide.
Her buildings advance the state of the art through their innovative use of materials and groundbreaking research that reflects the influence of her former boss, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Yet these cutting-edge qualities are tempered by a traditional concern for the craft of architecture and a desire to address social goals through an approach that Gang calls "actionable idealism."
"We're idealistic. We're not ashamed to admit that. We want to get things done, and in our lifetime," she said in an interview at the new home of her firm, Studio Gang Architects. It's a limestone-sheathed, two-story art deco building at 1520 W. Division St. (a short walk from the firm's old walk-up office) that once housed the Polish National Alliance.
In the two-floor space, teams of architects work in clusters beneath exposed ductwork. Former offices have been turned into conference rooms named for trees. An old safe is now a coffee bar. A roof deck offers skyline views.
The firm, which numbered 12 in 2004, has swelled to 84 employees — 70 in Chicago and 14 in a New York office. Studio Gang is now one of the city's 15 largest architecture firms as measured by its Chicago workforce, according to Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
"Her firm is known as a creative boutique firm, like a laboratory," said Esposito. "Being able to hold onto that character is sort of an inherent challenge of a larger firm."
Gang's work is increasingly urban in its scale, as exemplified by Gang's co-design of the new parkland at Northerly Island, which replaces the old Meigs Field airstrip with 40 acres of open space, manmade hills, a wetland frequented by great blue herons and a bike path. Her influence at City Hall also appears to be on the rise.
On a recent tour of Northerly Island, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recalled how he met Gang after his first election to discuss her 2011 book, "Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago's Waterways."
The book not only contemplated damming the Chicago River to prevent the spread of Asian carp into the Great Lakes. It also envisioned how such a move might lead to redevelopment of nearby communities like Bridgeport. Eventually, the Chicago Park District tapped Gang to design a handsome North Side boathouse that flaunts a serrated roof. She's designed a comparable boathouse, now under construction, in Bridgeport.
Gang, who in 2011 won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, is typically thoughtful in addressing the promises and potential pitfalls of her firm's growth. She conceives of her office, she explained, not as a top-down pyramid, but as a tree. The roots are the firm's values, the trunk its ideas, and the people its branches.
"You are responsible for people who are above you — the leaves," she said.
Among the people working for her are such respected local figures as Meredith Mack, the Art Institute of Chicago's former chief operating officer, and Gia Biagi, the Chicago Park District's former chief of staff. Biagi's Park District experience should be a big help dealing with the often-quarrelsome public meetings that go hand-in-hand with proposing big changes to the urban landscape.
"People treat it like (taking) medicine," Gang said of the meetings. She believes, instead, that they can foster creativity.
Her Polis Station plan, which has no price tag, grew from a "community cafe" meeting, held earlier this year, that addressed how to break down barriers between neighbors and police. The police, Gang learned, were already holding basketball events and coaching youth teams.
"We walked out of that meeting and said, 'Why not bring the team to the station?' " she recalled. She pitched the idea of a basketball court to the Park District. Funds were raised and, shortly after the biennial began, a small, ordinary-looking basketball court opened in one of the outlying parking lots of the 10th District station. Neighbors say kids use the half-court setup, though they have yet to see many police there. Gang still wants to add colorful paint patterns to the asphalt around the court.
Not surprisingly, Polis Station has generated skepticism. Sgt. Ramon Ferrer, a veteran of the 10th District, said many officers don't want to live in violence-plagued neighborhoods, especially because it could subject them and their families to retaliatory violence from gangs. The fundamental problems, he said, aren't about design. They're the result of a lack of family life, civic-mindedness and godliness.
"We've lost our civility," he said.
But one of the people who will take part in Tuesday night's biennial panel — Ghian Foreman, executive director of the Greater Southwest Development Corporation, a community development agency — is more optimistic.
"I think it makes so much sense," he said of the proposal. "People used to come and hang out, but that's not how we utilize police stations now. You want to stay away from the police station. It's not an inviting place. It's seen as a negative kind of thing."
If nothing else, Foreman added, the Polis Station concept will spark conversation and debate.
Gang's firm doesn't "come with little ideas," he said. "They come with big ideas. It's going to force us as a community and a city to come up with some solutions."