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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Jeanne Gang brings feminine touch to Chicago's muscled skyline

Aqua, the undulating, 82-story structure, brings a fresh approach to skyscraper design.

January 17, 2010|By CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | Architecture Critic
  • Aqua, a new 82-story hotel and residential tower in Chicago by architect Jeanne Gang, is the tallest building ever designed by a female-led architecture firm.
Aqua, a new 82-story hotel and residential tower in Chicago by architect… (Steve Hall / Hedrich Blessing )

Reporting from Chicago — Before we turn to an assessment of Aqua, a new residential skyscraper in Chicago, permit me a quick (and relevant!) detour to a sidewalk news conference in Lower Manhattan, held recently at the foot of the under-construction Beekman Tower.

We join the event, held to celebrate the completion of its 76-floor steel frame, just as developer Bruce Ratner is ceding the podium to Frank Gehry, the Beekman's 80-year-old architect. Gehry pauses for effect. He looks out at the assembled crowd. He jabs a finger up at the tower. He says two words:

"No Viagra!"

At the risk of sounding foolish for trying to parse the triumphantly brief statements of the world's great architects: Really? I mean, couldn't you argue that during the recent boom years the easy credit that Ratner and his fellow developers came to rely on was to the skyline what the little blue pill is to, um, blood flow? That pouring 903 Gehry-designed apartments into an already saturated real-estate market is the sort of development folly or feat of architectural daring -- depending on your point of view -- possible only with the financing equivalent of a pharmacological boost?

Of course, that's not what Gehry, who understandably cares far more about architectural than economic symbolism, was getting at. What he meant was something more direct, and old-fashioned, about sex, swagger and verticality, particularly since the Beekman is roughly twice as tall as any of his previously realized designs and because there were moments after the credit markets seized up when it looked as though it might have to be cut down to a much more modest size.

Which brings us back to Chicago, where the $308-million, 82-story Aqua is another of the high-design towers that just managed to slip through the tightening noose of the faltering market. Located just north of Millennium Park and finished in the last weeks of 2009, it was designed by Jeanne Gang, Studio Gang's 45-year-old founder. That makes it the tallest building in the world by a female-led architecture firm.

In other words: No testosterone!

OK, maybe some testosterone in the ranks of the engineers and construction workers who helped design and build the tower. That much was clear when Gang and I rode the construction elevator to Aqua's top-floor penthouse, stopping every few floors to pick up a new crew of tile-cutters or plumbers. It was like a mobile male locker room in there.

Still, the final design of the tower, which contains still-unfilled hotel space on its lower floors and apartments and condominiums above, very legibly carries Gang's signature. And that signature is a memorable one: Aqua in the end is not as jaw-dropping on the whole as it looks from certain angles -- and in certain photographs -- but the building, with its undulating concrete-and-glass skin, does suggest a fresh direction for skyscraper design.

Balconies on each floor extend from the tower's concrete core, but instead of following the rectangular shape of the interior floor plan they pursue a rich variety of curves. The balconies create what Gang calls "an inhabited facade" and give the building, as its name suggests, a liquid personality. The effect is particularly dramatic if you stand at the base of the tower and look up: From that angle the facade resembles the rolling surface of the ocean.

Aqua's balconies are both a dramatic formal flourish and, in classic Midwestern fashion, solidly practical: They extend the apartments' usable space as well as their views -- and help provide shade -- while allowing the tower to have repeating, cost-effective floor plates. The same problem-solving skills are on view at the multilevel base of the tower, which sits atop the the old Illinois Central rail yard.

A feminine touch

How much of Aqua's substantial appeal, if any, has to do with Gang's gender? Certainly its shape is animated by characteristics that -- at the risk of slipping into stereotype -- we associate with femininity and even the female form. But then so does Gehry's Beekman Tower, which appears loosely draped in a fabric-like skin. Perhaps more to the point, Aqua seems impatient with the rigidly geometric and overly muscled shapes that surround it in the Chicago skyline as well as with the race to achieve height at the expense of architectural expression.

Aqua's debut also comes at a moment when the profession is opening up positions of prominence and leadership for more women than ever before. Many of the top architecture schools in the country are now overseen by female deans, including Jennifer Wolch at UC Berkeley and Monica Ponce de Leon at the University of Michigan. This month, Sarah Whiting, formerly at Princeton, became the dean at Rice University's School of Architecture.

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