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lisa rochon: cityspace

The work of Jeanne Gang, the outstanding Chicago architect being feted round the world, carries with it such impressive curiosity and intelligence that a conversation with her wanders far and wide, from the American foreclosure crisis and the "pathetic" state of toxic rivers to how to transform marble into a lightweight, luminous waterfall. Last month, Gang won a coveted MacArthur Fellowship – dubbed the Genius Award – given this year to, among others, a cellist, a poet, an elders'-rights lawyer and a condensed-matter physicist – each of whom were given a handsome stipend of $500,000 (U.S.).

If you think being an architect means designing buildings, you would be correct, but only partly. Here's what's on Gang's mind these days: "When we create outdoor spaces for people, we can also make them better habitats." Refreshingly, she's keen on integrating lush urban environments with animal habitats to entice all kinds of living beings. "Green lawns are like deserts to animals," she says.

Any kind of intervention in the city, she insists, should be kind to the planet, and smart. "We can clean our water using plants and bacteria that will break up pathogens. You can do all of this and create energy out of it."

On the massive amounts of money being spent on infrastructure, Gang says: "You need to really introduce green infrastructure such as planters, green roofs. We constantly repave streets. We need to do it with permeable pavement."

Gang, 47, is troubled by what she sees in the outlying zones of her own city, where newly arrived immigrants are stuck in a holding pattern of indignity. Commissioned by Columbia University and the Museum of Modern Art, Gang and her team delved into the difficult facts of Cicero, Ill., one of Chicago's edge communities, where 88 per cent of the 85,000 inhabitants are Hispanic, unemployment is rampant, factories are empty, and in 2010 there were roughly 1,000 foreclosures of private homes.

In Cicero, as elsewhere, the conventional postwar family unit no longer rules, and the promise of a steady income is unreliable. Gang has imagined a massive planting of trees and plants to help remediate brownfields. To save money, on land where factories and bungalows once stood, she would create flexible co-operative housing where people could share a kitchen or accommodate a variety of relatives and roommates, the materials coming from the bricks and trusses of yesteryear's industrial complexes.

Such is the complex problem-solving required to turn around America's zones of disaffection. Studio Gang's work will be featured in an upcoming New York exhibition called Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream at the Museum of Modern Art's PS1 contemporary art space.

While female architects mostly toil on the margins of a tough profession, Gang has the distinction of having designed the 82-storey Aqua Tower – the tallest in the world by a woman. Opened in 2010, it includes a healthy mix of rental apartments, condominiums, offices and the Radisson Blu hotel, which opens next week. Rising from North Columbus Drive in Chicago's downtown, on what used to be an abandoned railroad terminus, its curved balconies push and extend outward from the concrete floor plate to create a svelte, undulating profile. Rainwater is collected into cisterns and a giant green landscape spreads over the roof.

Compared to the vast majority of yawn-inducing macho slab towers – glass-and-steel monologues – Aqua is ambitious, iconic and ultra-female. This is what immediately struck me when I first toured the building during its construction. Even in a downpour, the architectural form engaged. Its units are priced at about half what it costs to live in Chicago's Trump Tower, a mean machine that looks zip-locked from the people on the street.

Gang's presence in Canada has been limited, so far, to a pair of undulating condo towers imagined – but not built – for Vancouver developer Concord Pacific. Why resist Studio Gang? This is exactly the kind of architectural daring after which the West Coast should hunger.

She considers Toronto a sister city to Chicago, connected through the Great Lakes, and will deliver a public lecture at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design next spring.

Gang's interest in architecture came after a childhood immersed in the wonders of engineering; her family would pile into their station wagon and road-trip away from their hometown of Belvidere, Ill., to go see the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam, "these great giant engineering projects," recalls Gang, whose father was a civil engineer. "We definitely saw all of America and some of Canada."

She considered studying engineering before landing at Harvard's Graduate School of Design to complete a master's of architecture. A two-year stint in Rotterdam followed, where she worked on epic and domestic-scaled projects for the oracle Rem Koolhaas; they recently collaborated on a Chicago competition.

Breaking with orthodoxy defines Gang's approach to materials and architecture. "A lot of times with my students, we'll take materials and break them. That's when you learn more about materials. One semester, I taught a studio about designing a bridge out of glass. We broke the glass."

For the Gang-designed Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College, currently under construction in southwest Michigan, rounds of cedar will be embedded in mortar to clad the single-storey building on its multiple, organically shaped sides. When her 40-person firm – founded in 1997 with her partner, Mark Schendel – was asked by the International Masonry Institute to rethink marble for an exhibit at Washington's National Building Museum, they created a gown-like shape that cascaded from the ceiling, configured of thin marble broken into about 600 puzzle-like shapes.

Last week, Gang returned to the Building Museum, where she was honoured by the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction. At an awards ceremony, which I attended, her firm was recognized for its Ford Calumet Environmental Center in Chicago. (The Gold Award North America went to Toronto's Mason White and Lola Sheppard of the firm Lateral Office for their conceptual design, conceived for Iqaluit, of food-gathering sheds placed along snowmobile trails.)

The Ford Calument centre will harvest some of the scrap metal of a vast disused industrial complex in Chicago's far south side to create raw, highly expressive shelters for birdwatchers and schoolchildren: The site, which once sat at the heart of the largest steel-producing region in the United States, has become a nesting ground for migratory birds. Construction, pending full funding, is scheduled to begin next year.

Like birds, Gang and her team have picked through the debris of the zone. In a fresh and radical move, they are imagining new ways of rebundling old construction columns; and of making basket-like screening, from rebar, to hover over big outdoor porches. Seems like an intelligent kind of foraging. Brutally honest and raw – just right for these troubled, shifting times.