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21 First Drafts: Jeanne Gang's Belden Loft

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Franziska Barczyk

First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there's often more to learn about their first acts.

Jeanne Gang
Belden Loft in Chicago, Illinois
Date completed: 1998

Getting the Gig:
In the '90s, Chicagoan Susann Craig, a sales rep for clothing manufacturers and outside art aficionado, rented out the extra bedrooms of her large Hyde Park townhouse, normally to graduate students looking for temporary housing. While she had a handful of renters over the years, one really stood out: Jeanne Gang, an aspiring architect who found herself between studies at Harvard and a gig in Rotterdam with Rem Koolhaas. Gang, who grew up in Belvidere, a small town roughly 70 miles northwest of Chicago, spent her childhood scoping out bridges with her dad, a civil engineer. Formative experiences encountering different types of buildings wile traveling, from Pueblo stone structures to Gothic cathedrals, had sent her down the architectural path. Gang and Craig became friends over the summer, and when Gang returned from working overseas in 1995, Craig began discussing her plans to downsize. When she came upon a raw industrial space in Logan Square, an area of the city's northwest side that's been the center of a frenzy of development for the last decade, Gang agreed to help her build it out and fashion a new home.

Description and Reception:
The 2,200-square-foot former industrial space, which Craig said they nicknamed the bra house because the building was once home to an undergarment manufacturer, needed a complete conversion. Gang designed and helped build the space pro bono as a favor for a friend (and an early resume piece). The result, an open, multi-level living space, features an atrium with a domed skylight that retracts with the push of a button like a garage door, providing the loft with an interior courtyard and connection to the outdoors. A towering wooden book shelf offers space for Craig to display her huge art collection, and retractable steel screens, set on tracks like barn doors, help frame and divide the space. The centerpiece may be a custom staircase, a spiral of Douglas fir and exposed steel railings that was based on a Lina Bo Bardi design, according to Craig. The open bathroom also contains a sentimental touch, drapery swen by Gang's mother.

Impact On Her Career:
An early showpiece for Gang, the loft would eventually lead to commissions such as the Starlight Theatre in Rockford, which she did as part of Studio Gang/O'Donnell with early partner Kathy O'Donnell. A roof of irregular Douglas Fir petals crowns the angular outdoor theater and creates star-shaped gap for gazing up at the sky. Gang's celebrated for her ability to meld engineering prowess and organic shapes and structures into powerful and adaptable designs; she harnesses nature because it's powerful, not pretty. The unique spirals of her staircase design may have been an early example of this philosophy, which shows up repeatedly in her work (the rower's movements reflected in her famous Chicago boathouse, or the wavy balconies of the Aqua Tower, inspired by topographical patterns in the landscape)

Famous Future Works:
Starlight Theatre (Rockford: 2003), Aqua Tower (Chicago: 2010), Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk (Chicago: 2010), WMS Boathouse (Chicago: 2013), Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership (Kalamazoo: 2014)

Current Status:
Craig loves her home, saying she's "here until death." Built to accommodate her large art collection and vast wardrobe—her closet, which holds five rolling racks worth of clothing, could be converted into another bedroom—she feels like it's a perfect, open space that compliments her lifestyle. "I knew [Jeanne] was a genius before the MacArthur foundation did."

Come Look Inside Jeanne Gang's New Supertall for Chicago [Curbed]
Jeanne Gang Will Design Expansion of Natural History Museum [Curbed]
Jeanne Gang's Plan for Miami is a Choppy, Prismatic Tower [Curbed]