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Behind the Scenes: Studio Gang

Nestled inside architect Jeanne Gang’s eponymous Studio Gang—the venerable firm behind iconic Chicago skyscrapers like the Aqua Tower and the buzzed-about Vista Tower—is an 800-square-foot model-making workshop helmed by Schuyler Smith and Juan De La Mora. Here, an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Studio Gang’s masterpieces in the making.

Studio Gang’s dedicated model-making shop inside their new Noble Square office is evidence of the firm’s unique process which emphasizes hands-on building and collaboration. “The process of making is a tool itself—a way for us to discover new potential in a project as it evolves,” says Jeanne Gang. “We push models beyond their typical role as representations for clients, using them to explore projects’ material, spatial, and formal qualities. And we often employ both digital and analog methods—combining digitally printed and cut elements with materials that have been woven, cast, carved, and assembled by hand.”

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From 3-D printing to hand-stitching, the Studio Shop team employs an array of techniques to create their scaled models.

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A miniature forest of paper greenery—ready to landscape the latest tiny tower—sits in the middle of the bustling shop.

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“[A model] is a three dimensional sketch,” says shop co-director Juan De La Mora. Here, he carefully cuts a block of foam into a curved wall.

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“At Studio Gang the modeling is used differently than a lot of architectural offices use it. For us, it’s a design tool that everybody throughout the entire office gets involved in,” says shop co-director Schuyler Smith.

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A team member works on a model of the Richard Gilder Center at the New York American Museum of Natural History.

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The building’s organic canyon-like inner volumes are being constructed by carefully hand-stitching cotton to a wire form.

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An alternate view of the Richard Gilder Center model, which is built to an especially large scale (1/2 inch equals 1 foot). “Building a model that big really makes you understand what you’re up against and what you’re working towards. Your excitement builds as you build it bigger,” says De La Mora.

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The team is working on a study model for a ceiling system in an ongoing project. Inspired by the underside of a mushroom cap, the system is designed to hold mechanical elements while keeping them accessible and providing acoustic absorption.

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A tiny visitor wanders the model, with the mushroom cap-inspired ceiling system in action above.

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A model for the much-anticipated Vista Tower, a 95-story Lakeshore East skyscraper that, once completed in 2020, will be the city’s third-tallest building

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Miniature midcentury furnishings illustrate an up-close view of the residential units inside the Vista Tower.

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Smith carefully traces a stencil onto fabric. “There’s a sense of discovery and exploration that you can find when working with your hands that you don’t get when you’re working digitally,” he says.

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Since testing materials is a main part of the model-making process, Smith and De La Mora use a bevvy of mediums to construct their models—from paint and paper to wood and acrylic to foam and ice.

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Long before the Vista Tower was a lofty vision of tessellating steel and glass along Chicago’s eastern swath of lakeshore, it was a pair of classic red-and-white movie-theater-style popcorn boxes stacked base to base in Jeanne Gang’s studio. The architect, principal of the revered firm Studio Gang, was inspired by the geometry of crystalline structures and represented the mineral’s trapezoidal geometry with the pinstriped cardboard boxes. Drawing on Gang’s rudimentary model, her team expertly handrendered the tower’s undulating frustums from foam. Years later, as construction crews grind away at the foundation of the 95-story spire slated for completion in 2020, Schuyler Smith and Juan De La Mora—who helm Studio Gang’s dedicated model-making Studio Shop—are ruminating on the exact colors of bluish gradient glass that will eventually clad the skyscraper’s near 1,200-foot facade through colored films carefully taped to a 3-foot-tall model.

While model-making is a requisite part of Studio Gang’s process, the onslaught of digital technologies has rendered the once-compulsory practice a latent skill that most young architects will never employ beyond undergraduate design classes. “There’s a tremendous amount of respect [at Studio Gang] for things done with your hands,” says Smith, who studied under Gang and Managing Principal Mark Schendel alongside De La Mora at IIT’s College of Architecture before joining the team at Studio Gang. “The process of making is a tool itself,” explains Gang. “We often employ both digital and analog methods—combining digitally printed and cut elements with materials that have been woven, cast, carved and assembled by hand.”

While master architects like Uruguay’s Rafael Viñoly and Italy’s Renzo Piano still famously utilize model-making in their everyday practices, one would be hard-pressed to find a studio in North America with an in-house shop like Studio Gang’s. Prominently placed behind a glass partition on the second floor of the firm’s recently renovated Noble Square headquarters, the 800-square-foot model shop is a hands-on space where nearly every member of the almost 100-person team is encouraged to build, investigate and explore their designs off the screen. “We use modeling differently than a lot of architectural offices use it,” says Smith. “The models are used as studies to drive the design; to prove things out. They’re not just trophies that show up in the building’s sales center. They are tools.”

A walk through Studio Gang’s offices proves this mentality: Intricate foam towers and wispy paper trees dot desktops and conference tables like miniature cityscapes. Not a single structure is immune to revision (think entire basswood wings ripped off with the stroke of a hand) even after ground has been broken and beams have been erected. “You’re not married to your models,” explains De La Mora. “You can pull and tear and rip your model apart to get further across your process and settle your own creativity. I mean, how many times do we sketch over our own lines to get the perfect curve?”

From conception to construction, each and every project that Studio Gang takes on evolves structurally, aesthetically and even materially through the building of its various models. After the firm was tasked to design the Richard Gilder Center at the New York American Museum of Natural History, Smith and De La Mora attempted to manifest the expansion’s infill volume that is carved out like a canyon from paper, clay, foam, acrylic and even ice before arriving to their current technique. A bent wire apparatus defines the space’s structure, while carefully basted cotton creates organic sightlines—a method that has directly informed the construction process, which will utilize curved rebar sprayed with concrete. “There’s a direct correlation between building the model and building the building,” explains Smith. “Tolerances, material thicknesses... all of these things that don’t exist in the digital realm become abundantly clear when you start building a smaller version with your hands.”

Even the less glamorous architectural considerations are determined through the studio’s model-making process. Smith and De La Mora once transported a large-scale model to the construction site of Columbia College Chicago’s 35,500-square-foot state-of-the-art Media Production Center in order to help contractors coordinate the building’s intricate placement of mechanical equipment and utility ducts. “Whether it’s to inspire or warn against, the step of seeing something in the physical world is an important one every time,” says Smith. “It’s built into the very way we do business. It’s essential to who we are.”