Aqua—a new, eighty-two-story apartment tower in the center of Chicago—is made of the same tough, brawny materials as most skyscrapers: metal, concrete, and lots of glass.
But the architect, Jeanne Gang, a forty-five-year-old Chicagoan, has figured out a way to give it soft, silky lines, like draped fabric. She started with a fairly conventional rectangular glass slab, then transformed it by wrapping it on all four sides with wafer-thin, curving concrete balconies, describing a different shape on each floor.
Gang turned the façade into an undulating landscape of bending, flowing concrete, as if the wind were blowing ripples across the surface of the building. You know this tower is huge and solid, but it feels malleable, its exterior pulsing with a gentle rhythm.
The building would be an achievement for any architect, but Gang, who has run her own firm since 1997, had never designed a skyscraper before and happened into this one almost by accident.
A couple of years ago, she was seated at a dinner next to Jim Lowenberg, a developer who had built a number of mediocre condominium towers in a huge development over the old Illinois Central rail yards, known as Lakeshore East. A prime site in the project remained, Lowenberg told her, and he envisioned doing something more ambitious there. He liked Gang and offered her a shot.
A lot of attention—in Chicago, at least—has been given to the fact that Aqua is the tallest building in the world designed by a woman. That’s nice for Gang, but beside the point, and dwelling on it leads too easily to predictable interpretations of skyscrapers as symbols of male identity. Gang’s achievement has more to do with freeing us from such silliness. Her building is most compelling as an example of architecture that is practical and affordable enough to please real-estate developers and stirring enough to please critics. Not many buildings like that get made at any height, or by architects of either gender.
Furthermore, the success of Aqua isn’t just that Gang figured out a smart, low-budget way of turning an ordinary glass condo tower into something that looks exciting. The design is anchored in common sense in two ways that aren’t immediately apparent, making the building, from a technical point of view, even more remarkable than it looks. The balcony overhangs of the façade serve an environmental purpose, shading apartments from the hot summer sun. More ingenious still, they protect the building from the force of wind, one of the most difficult challenges in skyscraper engineering. The landscape of rolling hills and valleys created by the balconies effectively confuses the heavy Chicago winds, giving them no clear path. The wind is broken up so much that the building didn’t require a device known as a “tuned mass damper”—a mass weighing hundreds of tons that engineers place at the top of tall buildings to stabilize them against the vibrations and sway caused by the force of wind. And using the curves to dissipate the wind gave Gang a bonus: she was able to put balconies on every floor, all the way up. Usually, condominiums sixty or seventy floors above the street don’t have balconies, because it’s just too windy up there to go outside.
When you catch your first glimpse of Aqua’s swirling façade poking out from between its boxy neighbors, you might think it’s a gigantic version of one of those “blob” buildings of the past few years, curvy forms designed largely by computer. But Gang isn’t Greg Lynn or Hani Rashid. She brings aesthetics and engineering together in a way that is more aligned with the tradition of Chicago’s canonical modern architecture than the building’s appearance suggests. Chicago is where architects like Louis Sullivan, John Wellborn Root, Mies van der Rohe, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill elevated pragmatic solutions to structural problems to the level of art. And that is precisely what Gang has done, albeit with a different aesthetic. For all its visual power, Aqua is mostly free of conceit. In an age in which so much architectural form—even, sometimes, the best architectural form—has no real rationale beyond the fact that it is what the architect felt like doing, there is something admirable about the tower’s lack of arbitrariness. It reclaims the notion that thrilling and beautiful form can still emerge out of the realm of the practical.
In this sense, Gang could not be more different from Zaha Hadid, who is the most famous female architect around. Hadid is a brilliant shaper of form, but her buildings are nothing if not arbitrary, and the combination of her fame and her flamboyant designs has insidiously led people to assume that female architects tend to favor shape-making over problem-solving. In fact, there are plenty of women who have built successful architectural practices by selling themselves not as divas but as purveyors of reason who also happen to be able to make beautiful things. In New York, Deborah Berke, a fifty-five-year-old architect and professor at Yale, directs a firm that has designed hotels, art galleries, academic buildings, houses, and the high-profile 48 Bond Street condominium. (Berke’s Web site describes her work as “simple, not simplistic; elegant, not extravagant; luxurious, not lavish.”) In San Francisco, Cathy Simon founded a firm, SMWM—until a recent merger, it was among the largest women-owned firms in the country—that numbers the restored San Francisco Ferry Building and the San Francisco Public Library among its projects. Marianne McKenna (the “M” in the big Toronto firm KPMB) just finished an acclaimed concert hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music, in Toronto, and has been in charge of a new downtown university campus in Montreal. Denise Scott Brown, of the Philadelphia firm Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, has been a dominant force in the field of planning and urban design for more than a generation.