Aqua Tower – the tower that Jeanne Gang built
With its rippling facade and vast green roof, Chicago’s Aqua Tower is a revelation. It’s also the tallest building in the world to be designed by a woman
Jeanne Gang spent her childhood holidays out on the road with her family, looking at the bold new bridges and roads springing up across America. Her father, a civil engineer, also took her to natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and the towering rock formations of the Great Lakes in Michigan.
Gang grew up to be an architect with her own practice, Studio Gang, and now elements of what she saw on those road trips have come together in her first skyscraper, the Aqua Tower, a $308m (£188m) addition to downtown Chicago‘s architectural splendours.
The Aqua Tower, rising up in a dance of ever-changing concrete forms, is very different from its neighbours. Seen from the sidewalk, it really does have the look of a multi-layered Lake Michigan rock formation, albeit one that towers above the city. This is a Chicago landmark that has broken out of the city-wide straitjacket of right angles and smooth surfaces – as if Gaudi had taken up skyscraper design, or a spinning ballerina had morphed into a building.
It all began three years ago at a dinner following a Frank Gehry lecture in Chicago. Gang found herself sitting with architect and developer James R Loewenberg, who asked her to take a preliminary design for his Aqua Tower and make it sing. She jumped at the chance. After all, at 819ft, the Aqua Tower would be the world’s biggest skyscraper designed by a woman (or, to be more precise, the tallest building in the world designed by a female-run architectural practice).
Skyscrapers are traditionally seen as an expression of overbearing male libido, a sort of mine’s-taller-than-yours competition. So, even today, it is a surprise to find a woman building so swaggeringly high. (Zaha Hadid currently has skyscraper projects in five cities, but none completed). Gang politely dismisses such hackneyed assumptions. She is, after all, part of a team. “Our working method is very collaborative. Having said that, at least half, maybe more, of the staff here are women. I just think it’s natural. I’ve always wanted to build. I was encouraged to make and repair things by my parents. But OK, I can’t hide the fact that it’s great to have done a skyscraper, even if I never do one again.”
Gang, who wanted to be an engineer before she decided on architecture, grew up in a small town near Chicago. She says she thinks of the city as a mountain range rising up from the flat Illinois plains that flank Lake Michigan. “When we got the commission, we were partly thinking of building a mountain. But, being steeped in engineering, I also saw the project as a work of urban infrastructure. The tower is a machine plugged into the city – working for people – as well as being a kind of peak, or rock formation.”
Behind its weaving balconies, this 82-storey residential and hotel tower is a largely conventional building. Conventional in plan, that is, but unexpected in terms of form, and laced through with amenities and luxuries. Although it opens in the middle of the worst recession to hit the US since the 1930s, most of its 740 flats have been sold.
From its waltzing balconies, the tower offers fabulous views of the city and its other skyscrapers, of the recently completed Millennium Park, and, of course, of Lake Michigan. It also boasts a swimming pool, sky gardens, a library and a billiard room. Meanwhile, an eight-floor terrace projecting over the entrance offers a running track and open-air hot tubs. The tower’s garden roof is Chicago’s most extensive.
Yet, despite this rippling tower’s presence and sparkle, and the fact that it will bring Studio Gang international attention, it is not really the building this young Chicago practice wishes to be judged by. In fact, nearly every other project in its 35-strong office is low-key by comparison. Most are for public clients, none of them underpinned by skyscraper budgets. “I like different types of work,” says Gang. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed.”
After training at the University of Illinois, then in Zurich, then at Harvard, Gang worked for Rem Koolhaas – an architect for whom the extraordinary is commonplace – on several key commissions, including the exquisite Maison à Bordeaux, a three-storey house for a wheelchair-user, crowning a hill that overlooks Bordeaux.
Gang set up on her own in Chicago in 1997, when she was in her early 30s. The fledgling studio’s first project was putting a roof over the 1,100-seat bowl-shaped theatre of Rock Valley College in Rockford, Illinois. Inspired by nature and her knowledge of engineering, Gang came up with a six-piece steel roof that opens, in 40-ft triangular sections, like a giant flower in fine weather.
A tower that’s bird-friendly
In Chicago’s impoverished south side, her practice has built a much-admired community centre for foster children, and is working on an environmental centre, which rises in a happy weave of recycled materials from a site – part industrial wasteland, part natural wilderness – close to a Ford assembly plant. Gang likes working within an astute economy of means and materials. “Because of the nature of the sites and limited budgets, we’re making the building out of what’s available locally,” she says. “We’re like birds making nests.”
As it happens, Gang is immensely fond of birds. In the design of the Aqua Tower, she has paid careful attention to the way birds see – or don’t see – sheer glass walls, helping them to avoid fatal collisions. (A building with a complex facade is much safer for them, as are irregular window bars; birds pick up on the irregularity.) In her office, Gang has a number of bird’s nests lined up on a window sill; she says she admires their spare, essential beauty.
Studio Gang is on to something here: a creative fusion of nature, found materials, inventive engineering, structural economy, and a matter-of-fact environmental awareness. And, of course, style. Even if the Aqua Tower, the glamorous, dancing skyscraper that will make Jeanne Gang an international name, is not typical of her studio’s work, it is a mighty bird’s nest of sorts, an urban rock face for people with a fondness for heights to nest in. Infused with a big mid-western spirit, Gang’s architecture promises to soar in the coming years, whether built close to the ground and down to a budget, or 82 storeys up into the skies above Chicago.