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Architect Jeanne Gang Wins $500K MacArthur Genius Grant

Gang, a 2011 Fast Company Master of Design, is the only design figure to take home the prestigious award this year.

Architect Jeanne Gang Wins $500K MacArthur Genius Grant

Jeanne Gang, a Chicago architect and a 2011 Fast Company Master of Design, has won a prestigious MacArthur fellowship, the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation announced today.

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The fellowship–widely known as the genius grant–awards creative thinkers in various disciplines $500,000 each to pursue projects of their choosing.

Gang, 47, is most famous for designing the 82-story Aqua tower in Chicago. With a stunning concrete facade that looks like waves frozen in time, it was widely hailed as the most exciting new skyscraper to rise over the birthplace of skyscrapers in recent years. But more than a pretty face, it’s a monument to innovative green design. Features included heat-resistant and fritted glass, rainwater collection, and energy-saving lighting. Even the facade, which looks like a pure formal exercise, was carved to mind the angles of the sun, creating a natural shading system. Gang’s genius is in dreaming up environmentally minded solutions that go beyond solar panels and a few low-flush toilets. In her words: “What we’re really good at is looking at the big picture of a problem and not just thinking of it as a building.”

No idea what Gang will use her half million dollars for. But outtakes from an interview she did with Fast Company in July offer some clues as to where she’s headed. Her dream project, she said, involves “the co-existence of human populations and wildlife” and making the two elements intersect. “That could apply to many different building types,” she said. “Right now we’re doing a concert venue on Northerly Island [in Chicago]. It’s a park setting right on the water, where we’re going to start to introduce habitats–but at the same time it’s going to be a concert venue. I like… an institution that brings a lot of people in, combined with an outdoor nature park.”

In receiving the award, Gang joins a talent pool of 22, which includes a stem-cell researcher, a silversmith, and a condensed-matter physicist. She was the sole recipient in architecture this year and the second female recipient in architecture ever. Elizabeth Diller of the New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro won a MacArthur (along with her partner Ricardo Scofidio) in 1999.

With additional reporting by Margaret Rhodes.

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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