Chicago is the most American of America’s great cities, the boldest and the least pretentious. Its unsurpassed collection of high-rises clusters around the Chicago River, then spreads north along Michigan Avenue as a heterogeneous array of skyscrapers parallel to that inland sea, Lake Michigan. Close to where the Chicago River flows beneath several bridges to meet the Great Lake, and just north of Millennium Park with Renzo Piano’s new addition to the Chicago Art Institute (one of America’s outstanding museums) and Frank Gehry’s arching lattice for the Jay Pritzker Pavilion (an outdoor music venue), a new tower has taken its place in the rich urban panorama. Its name is Aqua and its architects are the up-and-coming local practice, Studio Gang.
Aqua is a symbol of a more discerning ambition on the part of Chicago’s real estate culture and signals the maturation of an important young practice on the Chicago scene. Eighty-two stories high, Aqua is distinguishable from its immediate neighbors due to a remarkable exterior surface, an epidermis of projecting floor plates that billow out to form extensive, curvilinear balconies and recede back to disappear against the ubiquitous, rectilinear glass curtain wall. Slim in section and almost uniformly white, these constantly morphing floor plates animate the great bulk of the tower. The profile sashays upward like some outlandish geological extrusion. Shadows play off the bright crisp soffits which read more emphatically than the virtually invisible, skinny metal balustrades. Where the balconies recede and dissolve into the tower’s curtain wall, long linear expanses of glass appear on the façade as vertical pools of light and reflective surface, not unlike “finger lakes” in a rolling landscape.
The big sky, constantly in motion above the Windy City, is not only mirrored in these glazed recesses, the totality of the tower with its rippled profile and kinetic play between sunlight and shadow suggests kinship with the natural world. As one is unable to isolate or identify such elements of normative architecture as a window or door or mechanical equipment, and as the façades’ compositional elements stretch across ten or twenty stories at a time, the building reads less as a product of orthodox architectural practice and more as the result of some planetary force.
This apparently irrational eruption into a cityscape so indebted to the orthogonal boxes of Mies van der Rohe and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is neither as arbitrary as it might initially seem, nor as lacking in historical precedent. The Brazilian master, Oscar Niemeyer, has long been an advocate for sensuous monumentality, as exhibited in his Edifício Copan completed in São Paulo in 1966. Mies himself proposed, way back in 1922, a Glass Skyscraper with an extruded biomorphic plan; it inspired the Lake Point Tower built in 1968, close to the Aqua site, by the Chicago practice, Schipporeit-Heinrich Associates. And a few blocks inland from Aqua is Marina City, the iconic double high-rise with its complex communal program by another Mies student, or acolyte, Bertrand Goldberg.
Regarding Goldberg, Jeanne Gang notes his placement of activity zones - true living space - on the perimeter of his cylindrical towers. Looking up at Aqua, its interiors are seen to flow out into the air above the city and imply a habitable buffer of activity on all four facades. Look carefully, however, and notice that not all four sides are identical: balconies are deeper to the south. The undulating perimeter of floor plates may have started as a topographical model turned on its side, and parametric adjustments were undoubtedly aided by computerization, yet the final design of the tower’s morphology had such commonsensical determinants as sunlight, the location of living rooms, and handicap access. The form, therefore, does not derive from some algorithmic diktat but, rather, from a sequence of empirical decisions.
Approaching Aqua, it becomes apparent that the tower is part of a bigger urban strategy. The vertical, iconic element sits atop a two-storey horizontal slab that follows the street line and offers stores and a café to the general public. The soffit of a deep canopy, sloping up-and-out above the sidewalk, is perforated to accommodate air supply and light fittings - its breaths! As its name may suggest, and as contemporary standards demand, Aqua is also of course conscious of environmental performance.
To the northeast, a dramatic open staircase spirals down to a large sunken park that is surrounded by several towers by Aqua’s developer but lacking the later building’s sense of presence or style. Gang convinced her client to attempt a taller and slimmer tower than first envisaged, thus permitting an extra high-rise next door in the future. In partnership with Mark Schendel, her husband and fellow alumnus of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, Gang also designed a row of town houses - she refers to them as “cliff dwellings” - overlooking the park from the base of Aqua (the entire site was formerly the terminus of the Illinois Central Railroad). A second open staircase takes pedestrians back up to street level and a large ballroom in the Aqua plinth.
From inside the tower and from its balconies, the views out across the lake, Millennium Park and Downtown Chicago are extraordinary. With a hotel planned for the lower floors, rental apartments in the middle and apartments for sale in the upper portion of the tower are separated by a deep horizontal layer that houses outrigger walls for the effective distribution of wind load. There are also double-storey units in this and in a second horizontal zone at the very summit of Aqua.
Studio Gang was not responsible for interior design and Aqua’s plans are comparatively simple. They did however specify six types of glass for the external membrane, with more opaque glass used when receding balconies provide less shade. Floors extend directly out onto the white, impervious surface of the balconies, separated only by threshold “reservoirs” built into the frame of sliding doors to retain rainwater should it pool on the exterior. Outside it is remarkably still. Indeed Gang points out that the wave-profile of the balconies disturbs and dampens the normal wind patterns buffeting high-rises in Chicago.
Looking down from Aqua, the rooftop of its plinth is revealed as a vivid contemporary roof garden with a running track, swimming pool and even a yoga area inviting residents down to play. It’s evidence of Studio Gang’s attitude to high-rise design not as the production of purely sculptural objects but as the integration of large-scale architecture with the communal life of the city.