In a conversation between Jeanne Gang, Principal of Chicago-based firm Studio Gang, and Zoë Ryan, Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago, Gang discusses her practice; what it means for architects to be engaged in larger social issues; and her timely, radical project reimagining the police station for the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Zoë Ryan: Can you talk about your Biennial project?

Jeanne Gang: We’re studying the relationship between communities and policing, through the lens of the space of the police station. Prompted by current incidents of police violence against people of color, as well as the May 2015 publication of a report by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, we wanted to know if design could play a part in the effort to re-build trust. We took the recommendations or “pillars” in the report and tried to see if they could be made architectural. This has necessarily entailed talking with community members and organizers of all ages, local activists, public officials, members of law enforcement, and academics, listening to their stories and trying to understand everyone’s viewpoint, needs, and desires. Of course some issues are beyond architecture, like achieving gun control laws, but we began translating the information that had spatial implications into ideas about design. We were drawn to thinking about the police station because it is its own physical entity; as a space, it has the potential to set the stage for the “pillars” to succeed, to potentially rebuild and strengthen links within communities.

ZR: This is surprising, because I would have thought that police stations are typically the places that we veer away from unless we need urgent help.

JG: I think for many people police stations are intimidating spaces with negative connotations, but why is that? Instead, what if police stations could be safe havens and places of engagement? Police stations need certain areas that are very highly secured, but there is great potential to expand the public side of this building type. Police stations could be the glue in a neighborhood, where community members could securely do everyday things like vote, pay bills, sign up their kids for summer camp, or find employment opportunities. These types of activities could take the stigma out of entering the station and make it more welcoming. There might be many combinations of program within the police station that could redefine how they are used and perceived. We are also looking at the police station historically to understand why it is what it is today — as a building type but also as a social construct.

Maybe conversations about these difficult issues, made so visible in the news throughout the past year, could be approached more objectively through the lens of urban design and architecture. The Task Force’s report has put forth many astute recommendations to address this issue — but so far none of them have to do with physical space.

ZR: Is this really the impetus for the project? It’s a much more national issue.

JG: It’s more the result of being a citizen — awareness of what’s going on and asking what could be done. The Task Force report is extensive. It’s very powerful and promising. We were curious how it would inform space, program, and community.

(left) Polis Station: Toward a Community-Centered Police Station (right) Polis Station installation at the Chicago Architecture Biennial

ZR: How does it?

JG: It’s more focused on policy and procedural changes than the effect of physical space. But that’s what we’re hoping to begin to address. To give just one example, our interviews revealed there is a desire for more regular, informal, and positive interactions between police officers and community members, not just confrontations in the line of duty — and that these interactions work to build trust. Officers have been asked to volunteer as coaches for local youth teams in the communities where they work, but oftentimes these opportunities are not very easily accessible. We’re exploring how to incorporate more community amenities and program at the police station so that there is more opportunity for casual interaction on site. Many of the ideas we’re exploring are actually relatively inexpensive and easy to implement. We’re excited to share our findings and highlight the interesting work that’s being done in this area and to spark further conversation. For me, that is what’s so exciting about the Biennial — how it offers a forum to ask these questions and to continue conversations. It has the potential to push ideas and research forward, to highlight issues that encompass architecture but ultimately bring it to the service of community.

ZOË RYAN is the John H. Bryan Curator of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago. She was previously a curator at the Van Alen Institute in New York, and directed the second Istanbul Design Biennial in 2014 titled “The Future is Not What is Used to Be.”

JEANNE GANG is an architect and principal of Studio Gang, which she established in 1997 and now has offices in Chicago and New York. Her built projects include the 819 ft. (250 m) Aqua Tower in Chicago, completed in 2009.

This is an excerpt of a longer conversation, condensed and edited for clarity by Consortia. The full text of this conversation and many others will be featured inThe State of the Art of Architecture, the catalogue of the first Chicago Architecture Biennial. The book will be published by Lars Müller Publishers in November 2015.

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