Community Conversation with Studio Gang

AAC Executive Director Todd Herman and Studio Gang founder Jeanne Gang answer questions from community members at Tuesday’s event.

At the first of many community conversations regarding the future of the Arkansas Arts Center, Studio Gang founder and principal Jeanne Gang shared insights on her firm’s philosophy regarding architecture and approach to design, focusing on the ways architecture can help people connect with each other and their environment.

Gang highlighted three of the firm’s previous projects – the Nature Boardwalk in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Ill. and University of Chicago Residential Commons. While none of these projects are identical to the Arkansas Arts Center project in form or function, Gang noted that in each of these projects, the firm focused on connecting communities and environments, elements shared with the AAC project.

“This place is a strong community anchor, and it’s set in this park setting, which I think is really an important part of the project,” Gang said. “And it’s about bringing community together.”

The Nature Boardwalk in the Lincoln Park Zoo began as a project to create “an outdoor classroom” – place where students could come to learn about nature.

“Usually at the beginning of a project, we’ll step outside, zoom out a little bit to see what is the real issue that’s impacting that organization,” Gang said. “And here, even though they wanted the pavilion, which they got, there was also this other issue was the pond itself that was part of the site.”

The firm built a stationary, yet interactive, pavilion that allowed visitors and students to engage with the pond. They also set out to solve some ecological issues in the park, proposing a rehabilitation of the pond, along with landscaping and a boardwalk circling the space. The pavilion and boardwalk have since become a major attraction, drawing yoga classes, weddings and tourists to the Lincoln Park Zoo.

The Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Ill. Photo by Steve Hall (c) Hedrich Blessing.

The Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Ill. is home to a highly-regarded theatre company. Studio Gang was tasked with building a new theatre that would give the company the performance space needed, while also providing space for the audience to continue to connect even after the performances ended. The lobby space in the theatre is open and serves as gathering space before and after performances and for student groups. Since its opening, it has even become a place where students gather to study after school.

“In the one year that it’s been open, it’s been an anchor – they’ve sold out all their shows,” Gang said. “It’s allowing this theatre company to be who they really were meant to be. It really embodies their personality and it’s about contributing to this liveliness of the town.”

At the University of Chicago, Studio Gang was challenged to create an 800-bed residence hall and dining facility that connected the cloistered, Gothic-style campus with the city in the distance, while also helping students connect with each other. Using the idea of portals found in other campus architecture, Studio Gang created indoor and outdoor spaces that activated the plazas. They also created different gathering spaces that allowed for students to engage on different levels of community.

Community members in the audience were also invited to ask questions of the architecture team, along with Arkansas Arts Center Executive Director Todd Herman. Questions ranged from how to address issues of sustainability, especially in terms of green roofs and the ecology of the park to community outreach to the future of the historic Pike Fletcher Terry House to how to engage with all communities and constituencies across Little Rock and the state of Arkansas.

“Communities, we think both geographically and communities of different, diverse backgrounds, and so we want to approach all of those and get input from as many different community stakeholders as we can and community groups to understand what they’re looking for in an Arts Center and how we can serve the largest community that we possibly can. That’s really why we’re here and why we do what we do: We want to bring art to as many people as we can,” Herman said.

The Arkansas Arts Center announced in December the selection of Studio Gang as design architect for its upcoming building project. Studio Gang is an award-winning architecture and urbanism practice based out of Chicago and New York. Last week, the Arkansas Arts Center announced Polk Stanley Wilcox as associate architect for the project. Polk Stanley Wilcox has previously worked on a number of local projects, including the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, Heifer International Headquarters, the Arkansas Studies Institute and the recently opened Robinson Center expansion and renovation.

For more information about the history of the Arkansas Arts Center and this project, visit our website. As this project progresses, community members and Arkansas Arts Center patrons will continue to have opportunities to ask questions and provide input.

“We’re planning on having a number of outreach sessions to help us understand that community, but also to hear what people have to say,” Gang said. “What could that Arts Center mean to different communities and what’s preventing them from coming here?”

“What an Arts Center can do, and what museums often do – they are places where people can gather,” Herman said. “Artists often tackle and approach what can be difficult subject matter for what can be social issues and others. And museums often function as this place where people can come together and think about the more difficult issues facing society today in a safe and respectful place. And we want to create that kind of hub where people want to come and be and think in a broader scope.”

Watch Tuesday’s Community Conversation in full below.

Jeanne Gang also gave a TED Talk in October 2016 about how people engage with the spaces around them, and in turn with each other. Watch that talk here.