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Arts & Culture

The St. Regis Chicago is the world's tallest structure designed by a woman

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When Jeanne Gang ran into glass ceilings, she built skyscrapers...

Oh, my God. I'm just looking straight up at it. My God, this is flabbergasting.

...High-rises that make you gasp, like her latest creation, the 101-story St. Regis, a mixed-use building in Chicago. It is now the tallest building in the world designed by a woman. On the block is the 82-story Aqua Tower, which used to hold that title. Jeanne Gang has joined the company of giants in a skyline that bristles with buildings by Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe and Helmut Jahn, with skyscrapers that can seem to change shapes and colors with sun and water.

I don't know how to describe it - three columns, curvaceous, if I may, both reaching toward the sky and reaching up from, like, the center of the earth.

JEANNE GANG: Yeah. You know what? You said it was curvaceous, but there's not one curve in this building. It's all just stepping. It's all straight, but stepping, like, 4 inches out, out, out.

SIMON: It casts the shadow of a curve.

GANG: Yes.

SIMON: It's the way you have arranged it that casts like the shadows of a curve, so the building almost seems to change shape.

GANG: So you can do a little thing like that and multiply it over many floors, and you get an effect that's much different than, you know, what it would be on a shorter building or smaller building.

SIMON: Did anyone ever tell you you couldn't be an architect or, you know, you ought to go into interior design?

GANG: Well, as a matter of fact, one of my professors told me one time, you know, Jeanne, you know, it's great that you're studying architecture, but, you know, do you think a man really wants to hire a woman to design buildings? But those kind of things just really got me super excited to, like, prove them wrong, you know what I mean?

SIMON: You grew up in Belvidere, Ill., about 70 miles from here.

GANG: Eighty-two miles, to be exact. It's small-town USA. Growing up in Belvidere, like, Chicago is - was our major city for museums and for, you know, for visiting. So I did see skyscrapers early on. Because the Midwest is so flat, it's almost like Chicago is, like, a mountain range. It's a phenomena. So you come out of your way to go see it. And so it did impress me a lot when I was growing up and coming from a small town. But I think the small town gave me the sense of community and also a connection to nature that I still try to keep present in the work.

SIMON: So you're growing up in a place where you can see the way Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe and Louis Sullivan and so many great names kind of cast their signature into the skyline of this great city. Did you ever build, like, forts and treehouses and such?

GANG: Oh, absolutely. I was - I always just liked making the space to get into or go up into treehouses, and, you know, whatever. You name it.

SIMON: What put the skyscraper in your musts?

GANG: I just started my career in Chicago, and I was working on community centers. And one time I went to an alumni dinner, and I met the developer that ultimately hired me to build this building and the Aqua Tower.

SIMON: On this new building...

GANG: Yeah.

SIMON: ...You've got a floor where the wind blows.

GANG: Wind blows through it. With tall buildings, they're - essentially they're cantilevers coming out of the ground, so the wind affects them a lot. So we have to do a couple of things to make it comfortable when you're way up at the top.

SIMON: And let me explain to our people listening, I mean, in Chicago, it's very common to be in a tall building that creaks.

GANG: Indeed, and moves.

SIMON: And moves.

GANG: And moves.

SIMON: Yeah, actually moves.

GANG: But to counteract that, you put a heavy weight of some sort up at the top that moves at a different rate than the building, and that kind of cancels out that movement. So we did that here. Actually, we use water on the top in a big tank, and it sloshes around. But then, to reduce the wind more and to be able to use less material for the building, we found we could do a void up there, high up in the building, so the wind passes right through. And it really - it does an incredible amount to reduce how much stiffness you have to have in the building.

SIMON: What do you think makes a great building?

GANG: I think for the tall ones, there is a real responsibility to the public space and to the base of the tower. And because you're building very tall, you're also, you know, going way above your neighbors. And so you have to think about - I think about the light. And, you know, it's got to be a community member. And, you know, really important is thinking about how it reduces its energy use, how it can be passively designed to use less energy, how it can reduce carbon.

SIMON: Do you ever think about the fact that you're - you are now prominently occupying the same skyline as Mies van der Rohe, Helmut Jahn, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright?

GANG: Yes, of course. This is a city that's known for its architecture. So there's the kind of, you know, big shoes to fill. You know, when we just stand right here and we look down the river, there's a number of buildings that are equally tall or famous, like the Tribune Tower.

SIMON: And it had chips from - it does still have chips from other great buildings around.

GANG: Yes, this kind of spolia that it has integrated into the base.

SIMON: On our way over, you see people living on the street. You see people living on the street who could almost share this address, they are that close to this building. What can architects, builders, all of us do to put quality housing up for people who need it and can't afford to live here in the St. Regis or the Aqua Tower or almost any of the - or any of the buildings around here.

GANG: I think we have to think about helping to fund housing that is located not far, far, far outside the city. And it's not impossible to design interesting, good housing that's good for the environment. We recently won a competition called C40. It's 40 cities working on reducing carbon and making more equity in housing and other building types. And the site for this project is right across from the public library in the middle of the Chicago Loop. But it really was intended for people who make a lot less money than the people who live here and work in the Loop and are essential to our functioning society and a good society.

SIMON: Jeanne Gang, one of the world's great architects, in front of the St. Regis, her latest creation, thanks so much for being with us.

GANG: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.