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Chicago’s Aqua Tower with its undulating concrete balconies looks like rippling water.

Designing a building, or a block: This is an architect's job. But what about repairing the relationship between police departments and urban residents?

The Chicago architect Jeanne Gang is aiming for exactly that. By altering police stations from fortresses to community hubs, you can change the mindset of officers and of the community around them. "Spaces and environments are a huge influence on how we behave," Gang suggests. "It's a small example, but a police station could be welcoming. Why not make it a space where there's free WiFi and free computers? That way, it can serve a policing function and a community function at the same time.

"And if you can remake space, you can change a culture."

That sort of statement has been too rare; for a generation, architects have eschewed such social ambition and the responsibility that comes with it. But Gang, an intellectual leader in the field, is trying to knit together the work of making beautiful buildings and the larger job of building a city that holds together. It's a rounded vision of what design is about: beauty, but also prosperity and justice.

"It's what I call actionable idealism," says Gang, 52, who spoke earlier this month at Carleton University. "We want to help our cities, and help in a physical sense."

Out of that comes Polis Station, a proposal from her office Studio Gang that was a highlight at the Chicago Architecture Biennial last fall. Working in their home city, Gang's team of architects and urbanists looked at a typical station on the troubled West Side. Their proposal reimagines the station house, placing the secure areas at the back and a variety of public services – a library, daycare, mental-health-care providers and a community room – all sharing a grand public entrance and adjacent to new park space.

"When you have a fire station in your neighbourhood, people feel comfortable going there for help," Gang says. "People have a relationship with the workers. It's nice, and friendly. I was struck thinking about the architecture of police stations: People are scared to go inside."

Polis Station would change that. Although speculative, it is technically and economically feasible. It is also deeply relevant, a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the controversy in Chicago over the 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald, and to an increasing sense that urban police departments are detached, even after a long vogue for "community policing," from many of the people they serve. (Canadians shouldn't feel superior about any of this; urban police stations here are much the same. The best contemporary example I've seen, Toronto's 14 Division by architects Stantec, is essentially a handsome fortress.)

But it's a sign of the times that Studio Gang is even interested in such questions; Gang, who won a "genius grant" McArthur Fellowship in 2011, is a star in the field. She was recently named Architect of the Year in Architectural Review's 2016 Women in Architecture Awards. She and her firm could focus on easier and far more profitable things. They recently won the plum job to expand the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and a new American embassy in Brasilia.

Gang founded her practice in 1997 after school in Switzerland and at Harvard; she spent several years at OMA, the Dutch office led by Rem Koolhaas that was, and remains, an intellectual hotbed.

She rose to prominence back in Chicago (she is from rural Illinois) with a mix of commercial and institutional projects. The former offered scale and revenue; the latter, creative freedom and the budgets to innovate. But her office has proved its ability to innovate on all types of projects.

With the 87-storey Aqua tower in Chicago, she found a way to turn the boxy residential tower into sculpture – by working with the balconies on its outside. Their curvy contours ripple down the surface of the high-rise. That move was brilliant and economical – just as beautiful in real life as in drawings – and it has been widely borrowed.

And yet, she argues, even that building is not a merely an object. "It is closely connected to the city fabric," she argues. "There is a ripple in our work, that's getting bigger, from what was present there: a concern for cities in North America."

On a current project for a developer, the 500,000-square-foot City Hyde Park, Studio Gang designed a complex weave of balconies and sunshades that will allow residents to actually see and speak to their neighbours. "For us, residential buildings are about creating community," she says, "and that's true in a tower building as well. What does a balcony mean? What can it do in the city?"

Coming from Gang, that is not just lip service. Buildings like that one share an ethic with the firm's civic work, such as the Polis Station proposal; planner Gia Biagi is the studio's senior director for urbanism and civic impact. (Biagi will speak Tuesday in Toronto on a Canadian Urban Institute panel that I am moderating.) Their work includes the master plan for the 91-acre Northerly Island Park in Chicago, now under construction.

The collective message of all this work, much of it now being realized, is a broader sense of architecture's role in society, one that captures the growing spirit of public service in the world of architecture. "It's an exciting time of engagement between the profession and the world," Gang says.

And yet, beauty matters, too. "Architecture doesn't work unless it gives you this element of wonder and joy," Gang adds, "and you want to be there and you want to go out of your way to see it. That's the thing that ties together the generation that created eye-popping structures with the one that is now looking more at cities.

"I think what's happening now is looking beyond the buildings themselves to make a city that's even stronger," Gang says. "A building can have a magnetic presence that changes the place it's in." Even a police station.

Place Makers: The City We Want takes place April 5.

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