"I'm a relationship builder. When you think of a relationship builder, don't you just automatically think 'architect?'" asks acclaimed architect Jeanne Gang at the beginning of her lecture for TED Talks’ fifth annual TEDWomen series. While meant jokingly, Gang's question demonstrates how her architecture and urbanism firm, Studio Gang, treats trust, engagement, and social interaction as a a fundamental principle of architectural design, bringing new opportunities for civic engagement to the often anonymous nature of urban life.

Aqua Tower, image by Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing via Studio Gang

During her talk, Gang outlines how three of Studio Gang’s building projects — the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, Aqua, and the Polis Station — integrate Gang's understandings of how animals interact with their surroundings to produce spaces connect people to each other and their environment.

Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, image by Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing via Studio Gang

Established in 2014, the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership was designed as a space where Kalamazoo College students could meet and discuss social justice issues on campus. Built around a hearth, the center’s open concept design includes a living room and kitchen and was constructed with logs that allow carbon to be absorbed into the building, limiting the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Gang envisioned the center to work for "big social gatherings and [as] a place to meet one-on-one for the very first time.” By providing new opportunities for engagement on campus, the Arcus Center has opened the doors for strangers and campus groups alike to organize and share their visions for a better, more equitable campus experience.

Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, image by Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing via Studio Gang

When designing the Aqua skyscraper, Chicago's award-winning, mixed-use, 82-storey highrise, Studio Gang was challenged by how to provide meaningful interactions for Aqua's more than 700 residents. Gang's solution was to reinterpret skyscraper balconies to provide a similar function to a town square by allowing residents to interact from their balconies with their surrounding neighbours. Varying in size and shape, Aqua’s unusual balconies limit wind exposure at high altitudes, but more critically, they allow residents to see their neighbour's balconies below and beside them. Acting as 'social connectors,' Aqua's balcony design has enabled building residents opportunities for engagement with their neighbours. Since the building's opening in 2010, the balconies have led to the establishment of a community garden and new relationships in contrast to the often isolating, insular nature of skyscraper living.

Aqua's balconies encourage interaction among neighbours, image by Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing via Studio Gang

Studio Gang took a radical approach when redesigning the police station for Chicago's North Lawndale neighbourhood in 2015. Rather than employing the top-down, one-size-fits-all model Chicago has previously used when designing its police stations, the Polis Station was constructed to meet the specific needs of the North Lawndale community. Gang explains that the Polis Station was designed based on the idea that "if you can increase opportunities for positive social interactions between police and community members, you can rebuild that relationship and activate the neighbourhood at the same time." After consulting residents and police officers, the Polis Station re-imagined the often intimidating nature of police stations as a full-service community center where residents and police could meet, discuss, and interact positively. Integrating a barbershop, basketball court, and coffee shop onto the Polis site, and with plans to expand the site for a park in the future, the innovative public space could prove to be a positive step in the right direction to improve police-civilian interactions in Chicago.

Polis Station: Part of the parking lot was re-created as a basketball court, image via Studio Gang

Following their international recognition and success, Gang and her firm are hard at work on several new projects. Gang is currently in the development phase for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Exposition Park, Los Angeles. According to the museum's official site, the Lucas Museum will include “original work by world renowned and emerging artists, cutting-edge digital technologies, and daily film screenings in state-of-the-art theatres, as well as extraordinary educational opportunities for students of all ages.” In addition to her work on the Lucas Museum, Gang is also in an early stage of designing the 12-storey, mid-rise, mixed-use Solar Carve building in New York City.

Watch Jeanne Gang's full talk here on the TEDTalk website.