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Thursday, March 06, 2014

"Dirt Is a Free Souvenir"

Last night Jeanne Gang of Chicago's Studio Gang Architects spoke at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in SoHo as part of her National Design Award for Architecture Design from the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. In the talk she presented a handful of the firm's completed and in-progress projects (WMS Boathouse at Clark Park, Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo, Aqua Tower, City Hyde Park, Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership), as well discussing the book Reverse Effect and giving insight into the early stages of the work they are doing with the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The research and imagery of the book set the tone for the evening – which included a conversation with the Cooper-Hewitt's Caroline Baumann and the Van Alen Institute's David van der Leer – primarily through an emphasis on rethinking the norm and the given, and reconsidering our relationship to nature.

[Jeanne Gang. Photograph by John Hill]

The title of this post is a quote that Gang threw out after van der Leer brought up her dirt collection, carefully organized and cataloged in small, clear-plastic cubes. While dirt most certainly is free, and potentially a souvenir, it is also one of the strongest indicators and influences upon a place: it holds and filters toxins, in effect becoming a trace of human and animal habitation; it impacts structurally and architecturally what can be built in a particular location; and it colors the landscape as well as the buildings made from it.

Her thoughts on dirt paralleled a short video of Gang speaking before she spoke on stage. In the video she talked about architecture's ability to move from the big to the small, from urban plans to the materials we touch. In the small capsules of dirt we find her interest in big things, something also evident in her work with the National Aquarium. Rather than simply developing concepts for transforming a dolphin tank in one of the aquarium's buildings, Gang and her team have been researching dolphins and their captivity (something on the wane as they are increasingly seen as "non-human persons"), as well as how oceans are an under-explored and under-mapped terrain in our own backyard. There is clearly a desire for a "big picture" understanding that predates formal design concepts.

[L-R: David van der Leer, Jeanne Gang, Caroline Bausmann. Photograph by John Hill]

It was hard to not be fascinated by the research and ideas Gang was able to discuss in the event's 90 minutes. At one point, a question comparing her research to academic research was raised, making me think that while Gang's inquiries are in most cases tied to a result (typically a building), at some point all of that research should be made available to a larger group of people than whom she employs. Books are one way to selectively share information, but the research of Studio Gang and other firms (many being ex-OMA architects, where research is king) point to a broader responsibility that goes beyond that to the clients paying the bills.

Upcoming National Design Awards talks include Michael Sorkin and James Wines (March 27), Margie Ruddick with Janette Sadik-Khan (April 16), and Aidlin Darling Design (May 21). All events are at The Greene Space.

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