Acclaimed architect Jeanne Gang brings her design sensibilities to Howard Hughes’ next Ward Village tower.
Ko‘ula, a mixed-use, high-rise community, is designed to rise from Ward Village’s central plaza like stalks of red sugar cane swaying in the breeze.
That’s because its creator, architect and MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang, believes that residential towers should serve as the roots from which communities can flourish. She’s an Illinois-native so she doesn’t describe her values in the language of the islands; however, she’s got an innate sense of lokahi or the value of harmony and unity and ‘imi ola, the quest to seek the best life.
And when the 54-year-old talks about her design and the philosophies behind it, it’s clear that this is where Gang actually is sharing the deepest part of herself. Her work shows that she’s someone who believes in connectivity—a world where humans thrive because they have strong ties to the people and environment that surrounds them. She also believes in the transforming power of architectural design, which is really just imagination and logic melded into a physical form.
A few decades ago, the Harvard-trained Gang said urban design was often fortress-like in an effort to protect building inhabitants from anything outside. But in modern times, she’s championed the need for more open design concepts that improve relationships.
“Think about how much time we spend in buildings. They really shape who we are,” Gang says. “You are setting the stage for positive relationships or you could design in a way that doesn’t allow that. It’s important to pay attention to the relationships that we are setting up.”
The Architectural Review‘s 2016 Woman Architect of the Year is known for designing buildings that are part of a city and working on projects that help organizations redefine themselves.
“It’s a real strong point for our studio to help dig into what that organization is about and use architecture to get to the next level of where they want to go,” she says.
Gang did that with Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the building’s central living room, hearth and kitchen encourages visitors to make new bonds through informal, chance encounters.
Gang says Chicago’s Aqua Tower was designed so that residents could meet other residents through their balconies, which serve much like small-town front porches.
The project that launched Studio Gang, the architectural firm that she started in 1997, was redesigning a Chicago loft by cutting a courtyard from the ceiling to connect the inside space to the outside world.
From there her practice grew organically allowing her to use architecture “as a medium to explore the world and work on issues that I found interesting.”
She tries to convey that to the students that she teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and to Studio Gang’s collective of about 100 people, “who are really passionate about design and the world around them.”
Trying to make positive change— that’s what we try to do with our work,” Gang says.
The firm has its pick of projects across the globe. What drew Gang to Ward Village’s master plan was her interest in “the tension between becoming a city and staying part of the natural ecology,” she says.
The chance to work on Ko‘ula offered an added challenge since it sits at the center of the 60-acre master planned community that is expected at full build out to consist of more than 4,500 residences and approximately one million square feet of retail space.
Ko‘ula, which will consist of approximately 570 homes, 58,300 square feet of dining and retail space, 11,000 square feet of ground-level open space and 58,496 square feet of recreational area, is adjacent to the community’s green gathering space so it has the potential to shape Ward Village’s very core.
Gang said she has always loved nature. The daughter of an engineer, Gang said she also grew up with an interest in how structures form. Ko‘ula is an example of how her brand of architecture intersects the two.
“Ko‘ula fits into a language of modernism, and yet it has an organic quality to it,” Gang says. “Like a lot of my work, there’s a structural intention and logic and then there is also an organic quality that gives a softer, not as hard-core modernist thought.”
“We tried to create almost like a long-leaf very similar for what was used in the area that comes from the red sugar cane—twisting and growing up vertically,” Gang adds. “These support structures are the identity of the building and have soft undulating character that plays with light and shadow.”
The undulation reflects the waves. The leaf is a nod to Hawai‘i’s rich ecological habitats, especially the verdant land. The choice of concrete as the main building form expresses fluidity. The building’s white color adds interest by making it possible to simultaneously see the contours of the wallumn—the structure formed by the walls and columns.
“I felt like Hawai‘i was alive. The way that the islands are growing from deep volcanic flows and constantly changing,” she says. “That’s partly why we were looking to nature for inspiration.”
The history of the area also played a role in Gang’s vision—where Ko‘ula represents all things good, says Simon Treacy, president, Hawai‘i at The Howard Hughes Corporation.
“Ko‘ula is truly the most beautiful façade image that I’ve seen anywhere in the world,” says Treacy, a discerning art collector who doesn’t disperse artistic praise lightly.
“It’s just gorgeous and so in keeping with Ward Village where our master plan reimagines the destination as calm and tranquil and soothing, a reflection of the red sugar cane that is so much a part of the history of the place,” Treacy says.
Ko, or sugar cane, was among the life-sustaining plants brought to Hawai‘i on the canoes of the first Polynesians that sailed here. It was used as food, medicine and was held in such high esteem that it was offered to the gods. One varietal was the key to an ancient Hawaiian love potion. For centuries humans have loved sugar cane’s byproducts—sugar, rum, molasses and in more modern times, biofuel.
While Ko‘ula is grounded in the past, Treacy says it’s a marvel of structural design that will make new history and help complete Ward Village’s emergence as a global destination of note.
“It’s like a sculpture rising out of the garden,” he says. “It’s completely mesmerizing. The way the light plays off of the building, especially at sunlight and sunset, makes it like a mystical jewel that will continue to reveal new personalities. That’s consistent with red sugar cane moving in the breeze of the wind.”