Interviews, Essays, Etc.

Turning Off Reality and Letting Yourself Imagine—Interview with Jeanne Gang
December 6, 2011

What happens when a Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic meets up with a MacArthur Fellow architect and the topic of their conversation is books? Shortly before it was announced that Jeanne Gang had been named by the MacArthur Foundation as a recipient of one of its 2011 awards, she and Paul Goldberger had a conversation about the book list that Gang submitted to Designers & Books. They also spoke about Gang's book Reveal, as well as how her idea of “turning off reality and letting yourself imagine” applies both to the design development process of a building and the interior monologue that goes on when you are reading a book.

Paul Goldberger: Your work is wide-ranging; so, it would seem, is your taste in books, and what I particularly loved was the fact that this list moves back and forth between architecture and other subjects. It isn’t one of those “inside baseball” kind of lists that is of interest only to other architects and design professionals, but neither is it one of those lists that seems, as some of them do, almost ostentatiously to go in the other direction, as if bending over backward to prove that a designer is interested in other things. Were you conscious of moving in and out of architecture as you pulled this group of books together?

Jeanne Gang: I just asked myself what were the most exciting, inspiring books. They had to be on my shelf still (my books are arranged using the Dewey Decimal System), things that I have gone back to.

PG: There’s something quite wonderful about an architect who on the one hand uses the latest technologies, but on the other hand works in an office surrounded by books. It’s particularly wonderful to be able to put together a list like this by simply looking around your own office.

JG: A lot of times I remember a book by its color.

PG: I do, too. Or by its place on the shelf. I can close my eyes and picture it on that shelf somewhere on the left, or somewhere on the right.

JG: The physical book is also something that works in the office because I share my library with everyone, so if it’s something that I saw, and I remember, I’ll just run back to the office, get the book, bring it into a meeting, and people will take it home. It’s very much in the spirit of the library that Benjamin Franklin imagined—the Lending Library.

Jeanne Gang’s office library
Jeanne Gang’s office library

PG: Do you find that the architects who are in the studio with you also tend to respond to a lot of books about things other than architecture? 

JG: There is usually a massive addition to the library every time we start a new project, so yes. We just began work on designing a theater in Glencoe (Illinois) for the Writers’ Theatre, and we asked the theatre director, “What was your favorite book about theater?” and he gave us a book that is just fantastic. We would never have found it ourselves.

PG: What was it?

JG: It’s called The Empty Space.*

PG: It does sound vaguely architectural, however.

JG: It does, but it’s really about directing, although it is architectural—as everything is.

PG: That’s the other wonderful thing about your list and the way you seem to look at books. It’s very clear that those books that are not directly about architecture you’re viewing not as an escape from architecture, but as quite the opposite, as a different way back into it.

JG: Absolutely. They’re all informing architecture, and in a way, with every book I pick up, I’m thinking of how it connects to architecture.

PG: There’s another sort of common thread that I saw as I looked at your list, which is that in almost every case, either the author, or the subject, seems to be both iconoclastic and realistic—highly creative and pragmatic at the same time. Certainly we could describe Benjamin Franklin that way, and Rem Koolhaas also. (I never expected that I would ever use Rem Koolhaas and Benjamin Franklin in the same sentence.) And, indeed, if we wanted to, we could put Darwin in the same category, of being brilliant, iconoclastic, creative, and yet obviously quite connected to reality.

So this is a list that is profoundly serious and deeply thoughtful, and yet has very little pure theory in it. Italo Calvino, for example, is hardly theory; it’s fantasy in one sense and as we know, so connected to real life in another way.

JG: As an architect, as opposed to some other type of artist, I am governed by some very practical things, number one being gravity. Always trying to connect back to the physical world is one of my traits.

PG: For me, part of the magic of architecture has always come from the way it needs to have as much imagination as art, and yet as much reality as science and engineering. And if you’re not comfortable in both worlds, I don't think you can be a great architect.

JG: In the design process, I feel I can turn on and off either of those channels. So you can turn off reality while you’re letting yourself imagine, and then you can turn it back on, and it’s similar with reading books, too, in a way. You can get lost in them, or you can use them more as a tool, a reference.

PG: And of course, if you do get lost in a book, nonetheless in some subtle way it becomes a tool anyway because it affects you.

JG: It goes into your toolbox.

PG: Or your unconscious, and then comes out in some way in your work.

JG: If it’s a memorable book, it will.

PG: Let’s talk about a couple of more specific things from the list. I’m fascinated by your fondness for Franklin, who is somebody not thought about enough.

JG: His autobiography is hilarious, it’s entertaining, and it’s constantly inventive. Every page is a new innovation.

PG: He seemed to understand the world and want to reinvent it at the same time, continually.

JG: He was a vegetarian. Who would think that someone in his era would imagine, “Oh, what if I didn’t eat meat?” I kept discovering new things about him.

PG: We don’t think about him much in connection to architecture, and I’m fascinated to think that when you go back to American history in that period, it’s Franklin and not Jefferson that you go to.

JG: I love Jefferson, too, but as a writer he’s not as fascinating. I do appreciate the craft of writing, and the ability to make something compelling and interesting in words, and that’s Franklin’s gift.

PG: Much as I, too, love Jefferson, and really believe that the buildings he designed around the Lawn at University of Virginia constitute one of the greatest works of architecture of all time, nevertheless, it’s hard not to feel that Franklin would have been a much more likable person to have dinner with.

JG: Oh, by far more interesting . . .

PG: And with a much more self-deprecating wit. You don’t sense a lot of self-irony in Jefferson.

JG: And Franklin’s brain is curious. He doesn’t take things for what they are. He is constantly posing new questions.

PG: While we’re on individual figures, how about Eileen Gray? If it’s unusual to think of Rem Koolhaas and Benjamin Franklin in the same sentence, it’s even more unusual to think of Eileen Gray as part of this mix. She was a great figure, and a wonderful architect, and a fascinating human being. How does she relate to the themes we’ve just been talking about?

JG: One thing that I’ve always found exciting about her work and her story is that she comes from furniture and industrial design, and then moves outward. If you look at her drawings, there are all kinds of codes and symbols in her floor plans that have to do with movement and the human body, and it’s almost like the furniture becomes the architecture. I think I discovered her in this particular book, by Peter Adam, at a time when I was hoping to find a woman to look at as an architect. There just weren’t any women written about, and so that book really filled a void for me. I don't really spend that much time thinking about the fact that I’m a woman architect, but at some point I did wonder, “Where are the women architects? Why is it impossible to break into this thing?”

PG: Let me ask you about something you wrote, the précis for your section of the new exhibition at MoMA,** where you begin by quoting a line from Joan Didion, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Do you think of architecture in some ways as being a story?

JG: There’s definitely a narrative quality to architecture. I think that’s really an important part of our design process and our work. It comes out of a result of understanding and putting together the parts so that they kind of make sense, and create something that is a response to either an urban issue, or a group of people, or some kind of need.

PG: While your work often yields beautiful forms, it never feels form-driven. It never feels as if the form is the starting point, but rather the end result of a process that integrates a lot of other things.

JG: It’s not to say that I’m not attentive to form, because I am, but I think form should tell you something about the project. The most beautiful forms for me also have structural qualities because structure is the basis of architecture.

PG: It seems to me that if you start with the form, then it kind of crowds out everything else. There is no way for the rest of the narrative to get there, whereas if the rest of the narrative begins and leads you to a form, then they’re inevitably connected because one has given birth to the other, in effect.

Aqua Tower, Chicago, 2009, designed by Studio Gang Architects. (Photographs from pages 142, 176, and 160 of Reveal by Jeanne Gang)

JG: Yes, I think that’s fair. But as our work progresses, especially with tall buildings, I’m finding out that so many of them don’t go forward. 

PG: So what is the narrative of an unbuilt building, then? You had a pretty unusual situation in which your first tall building ever, Aqua in Chicago, went forward immediately. It’s like somebody walking into a casino for the first time and hitting the jackpot.

JG: I was thinking of it more like getting up to bat in a baseball game, and there’s two outs and it’s the bottom of the ninth, and a full count, so you’ve only got this one shot, and . . .

PG: I like that much better. I’ll go with your metaphor.

One of the things that’s always excited me so much about Aqua is the way in which the form both relates closely to structural and engineering issues, and wind, and so forth, and yet is also so powerful as a pure aesthetic, as pure form.

JG: It’s true. We had all these parameters, and then at some point we turned off that scientific thing, and just looked at the building as a form, and then a whole series of refinements were made on that level.

PG: To make it more beautiful in a sense?

JG: Yes, to make it more beautiful.

PG: It’s so rare that a building emerges so much from a concept of engineering and yet is not suspicious of beauty, either. You’re comfortable on both sides of what really shouldn't be a divide, but too often is. Let’s talk about your book Reveal, which is unusual as a monograph, and suggests to me a different sense of what a book can be. A conventional architect’s monograph is really just a museum exhibit of work put between covers. But Reveal is all about the sources of enrichment, the inspirations, the ideas, the challenges behind your work, which you put together not in a simple narrative way. It seemed to me a wonderful expression of the somewhat unconventional nature of your practice, where you have lots of diverse sources that still come together to create beautiful finished objects.

JG: I felt uncomfortable just putting a traditional book out. I’ve never liked the straight monograph. I thought that people could find some of the tangents that we take as designers just as inspiring or interesting as the final object that we end up with. And I think the tangents are those things that go on to inform other projects later on, and who knows what some of those things will eventually yield. I wanted to put something together that was more reflective of what design is as an activity, and not just as the final record of it. And so there is some order to it. For example, each chapter has a material report, and it might be a material that either I was reading about at the time and found some kind of synergy with the project, or what’s going on with the material in the big picture. And then there’s always a history section because on every project there are sometimes multiple histories that become important.

Some of the really compelling things that we discovered are in those sections. For example, while we were building Aqua, the workers discovered a giant boulder under the site. We found out that there was a history behind it–that it had been moved from one site to the next. This area used to be called “The Boulder Belt” and there are boulders from the glaciers all over the place. So when people were building high-rises on Michigan Avenue, they would just roll these boulders out of the way. Then I found out that some boulders ended up becoming monuments, and others were just smashed up, and some were rolled aside. So for that chapter I decided to write a fictional history of the boulder that we’d found from its point of view.

PG: That’s the kind of thing that I think could only be done by somebody who truly loves books and loves literature, to be able to write a kind of fictional history of the boulder as part of the story of your own building, and to see it as really connecting to a larger stream of history and physical geography of that site. You were saying that you did not see the building just as an object created by you for this moment.

JG: I do confess to the guilty pleasure of reading; it’s one of the best ways to turn off one’s own reality and imagine someone else’s.
Note: Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways, by Jeanne Gang in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council, was released by Studio Gang Architects in November 2011.

Reveal has been selected as a Designers & Books Notable Design Book of 2011.

* Peter Brook, The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate, 1968.

** “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream. MoMA PS. 1,” proposals presented beginning September 17, 2011; exhibition opens February 14, 2012.

(December 6, 2011)

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