(Bloomberg ) Architect Jeanne Gang snaps open a sunflower to reveal seeds that attract birds, turtles and raccoons to Chicago's Lincoln Park.
"These plants provide food," she says. "They hold up the pond where we ripped out concrete. They filter rainwater."
Before Gang redesigned 14 acres (6 hectares) of this landmark venue along Lake Michigan, the pond was a morass of waste from the nearby zoo. Now, on a brisk November day, the water in the dredged-out basin is cleaner and an open-air classroom forged from honeycomb-like sections of Douglas fir encourages children to study plants and animals close up, Bloomberg Markets magazine will report in its March issue.
Gang, 48, wearing a black smock-style dress and black boots, points her fingers in all directions to emphasize ideas she's cultivating in Chicago -- and hoping to export to Hyderabad, India; Mexico City; Shanghai; and Taipei.
Gang's Aqua Tower 2 miles (3 kilometers) south, the world's tallest building designed by a woman, rises 82 stories while occupying just one-third acre of ground. In nearby Cicero, Illinois, a city of 84,000 people where new immigrants jam tiny bungalows, Gang proposes revamping abandoned factories for extended families.
"Urbanization is the huge issue of our time," she says. "We can't survive if we can't solve the problems of population growth, loss of clean air and water and loss of biodiversity."
Gang and her firm, Studio Gang Architects, are pioneers in ecological urbanism, a field of design that considers rising populations and dwindling resources. Cities are key laboratories, and Gang says they must become denser and more nature-friendly.
She hasn't hesitated to take on global icon Frank Lloyd Wright with her anti-sprawl approach. Chicago's -- and America's -- most famous architect spent decades promoting single homes on suburban lots where residents would savor nature far from downtowns and connect with society in cars.
"I want to turn Wright's legacy upside down," Gang says with no hint of doubt. "The way to be ecological is not by spreading out. It's by clustering together. It's by having a better relationship with nature in the city than you can have in a far-out suburb."
Half a century after Wright's death in 1959 at age 91, his vision still helps define how mainstream America lives.
A third of U.S. residents inhabit central cities, the heavily populated core of large metropolitan areas. That percentage has held steady from 1940 through 2010, while suburb dwellers more than tripled to 51 percent of Americans during that time.
Globally, more than half the world's urban residents live in areas with fewer than 500,000 people, the United Nations says.
Gang's skyscraper showpiece, Aqua, bundles her brand of urbanism into what the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation termed "optical poetry" when awarding her a $500,000 so-called genius grant in 2011.
She gave the 738 apartments and condominiums sweeping views of Millennium Park and sunrises over Lake Michigan. Curved, cement balconies mimic mountain cliffs, protruding at varying widths and lengths to disperse wind gusts. And because Aqua households are close to work and school, they produce just 2.6 tons of carbon a year compared with as much as 14.5 tons for counterparts in a far-flung suburb, according to the Chicago- based Center for Neighborhood Technology.
As the afternoon sun moves west on a frigid December day, the wavy balconies cast constantly changing shadows, rendering surrounding skyscrapers flat and static.
Gang's critics say Aqua may be flashy, but it's flawed. Ted Kesik, a University of Toronto professor of building science, blasted her for failing to include insulating material to prevent heat from escaping from the cement balconies.
"If ever there was an icon of architectural pornography, it is Aqua," Kesik wrote in a February 2012 blog.
Gang says lack of insulation costs Aqua less than 1.5 percent of its energy and vows to do better next time.
Aqua was right for Chicago but not for everywhere, Gang says.
"We try to make each building work with what's happening in that particular place," she says, often enlisting ecologists and sociologists for studies.
When India's ICICI Bank Ltd. and other companies asked her to replicate Aqua in Hyderabad, she instead proposed four 25- story towers clustered around a courtyard, the traditional hub of Indian life. She chose sun-dried bricks from clay dug on-site to limit environmental costs. Developers put the project on hold after the 2008 financial crisis. Gang hopes it can be revived as the economy improves.
Gang expects her upstart studio to do more business overseas as she adds 60 architects in the next five years.
Today, 40 employees work in a book-lined office that looks out on Wigs & Plus and Bucktown Pawn in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood.
Half are female, compared with the 21 percent of licensed architects nationally who are women. Gang says she's out to hire top talent, not meet quotas.
"I'm just an architect who happens to be a woman," she says. "I'm designing spaces for people -- men and women."
From this perch 7 miles east of the Oak Park enclave where Wright fashioned some of the world's most revered homes, churches and museums, Gang says 21st-century architects must manage social and environmental complexity -- not create one building at a time.
"Ecological urbanism means thinking about growth and limited resources," says Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design, who popularized the concept.
"Jeanne can be seen as a prototype for this approach," Mostafavi says.
Ecological urbanism is catching on as cities struggle with environmental damage and natural disasters. Months before Hurricane Sandy unleashed $60 billion in destruction on the U.S. East Coast, Gang submitted plans to revamp parts of an abandoned port district in Hamburg, in Europe's biggest urban redevelopment. She placed second in December behind Shigeru Ban of Tokyo in the competition sponsored by the city government.
Gang's design sets six residential towers on concrete- filled steel pilings anchored in a 26-foot-deep (7.9-meter-deep) section of the Elbe river. They rise as much as 14 stories, with two bottom floors vacant to accommodate flooding.
Prefabricated wood and concrete reduce the cost and carbon footprint. Shade and ventilation cool the towers, and triple- glazed glass holds the winter sun's warmth, meaning heat and air conditioning require 85 percent less energy than under typical U.S. building codes.
"Instead of retreating inland, Hamburg is figuring out how to live in conjunction with water and the changing climate," Gang says.
Private developers reviving the port city may still choose her proposal for some towers, according to a unit of the Hamburg government that supervised the competition.
"Just getting invited to compete is an achievement, since Germany is on the leading edge of sustainable design," says Michael Speaks, dean of University of Kentucky's College of Design. "I'd be surprised if, in 10 years, Jeanne's not running one of the top six or seven architectural firms in the world."
Gang is entering one of America's hottest architectural showcases with a proposed 13-story office called Solar Carve along Manhattan's High Line park.
Opened in 2009 on an abandoned rail line, the park draws 4 million visitors annually. Instead of mimicking the neighboring Standard Hotel, which rises on pilings and creates a tunnel along the promenade, Gang wants a zoning variance to shave off two sides of her facade to preserve sunlight and Hudson River views.
Gang inherited her fascination with how complex structures fit together from her father, Jim, a county engineer in Belvidere, Illinois, who took her to study bridges. Growing up, she enjoyed a celebrated architectural city less than 90 minutes away.
Chicago pioneered skyscrapers as it raced upward after the 1871 fire destroyed downtown. In the 1920s, John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood's gargoyles and neo-Gothic flying buttresses made the city a symbol of a brooding 20th-century metropolis. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe arrived in Chicago in 1938, showcasing modern steel frames rather than ornate facades.
By 1973, height had become the goal: Sears, Roebuck & Co. opened a 1,450-foot headquarters, renamed Willis Tower in 2009. It held the title as the world's tallest building for almost a quarter of a century.
Gang was a preteen when Chicago gained renown for the tower. She went on to pursue an undergraduate architectural degree from the University of Illinois and then headed to Harvard's Graduate School of Design for a master's in architecture.
"My teachers were hippies from the 1960s who taught us about solar design and energy conservation," Gang says. "Once I got my own voice, my own practice, I could pursue it."
She went to work in Rotterdam for urbanist Rem Koolhaas. There she met her future husband, Mark Schendel, 53, another Harvard Design graduate, whom she calls her muse. Studio Gang's website lists Gang as founder and Schendel as managing principal.
Gang says she returned from Europe in 1995 to find that once awesome Chicago skyscrapers had become corporate and vanilla. Buildings ignored their surroundings, suburbs sprawled haphazardly and industrial sites sat vacant.
She started reintroducing nature, equipping Rock Valley College's Bengt Sjostrom Theatre in Rockford, Illinois, with a hexagonal roof that can open to the sky.
Today, she's pressing city government to stop sending sewage into the Mississippi River system. Instead, she wants the city to clean up its wastewater. That includes lining the Chicago River with wetlands so plants and bacteria can bust pathogens by producing enzymes that decompose organic material. She's converting Northerly Island, the site of an abandoned airport near downtown, into a 91-acre public park.
Aqua developer James Loewenberg, co-chief executive officer of Magellan Development Group LLC, has hired her for a second tower. Neither he nor Gang will discuss details because the project hasn't been announced.
"She's a jewel for the city," Mayor Rahm Emanuel says.
With her commitment to urban ecology, Gang is striving to make Chicago -- and other cities -- more appealing than Wright's idyllic suburbs.
After vowing to turn Wright's legacy on its head, she laughs when asked whether she aspires to one of his hallmarks: global fame.
"Yeah," she says. "Sure. Hell yes."