It was announced just this morning that architect Jeanne Gang is a 2011 award recipient of the $500,000 MacArthur Genius Grant. Gang, who leads her own firm, Studio Gang Architects, has best become know for her design of Chicago's Aqua Tower. The rippling, water-inspired design stretches high into the sky and is topped off with a vast green roof, and since completion, it has become an iconic piece of architecture for the city. Moreover, the skyscraper is also the tallest building in the world to be designed by a woman. Hit jump for the story behind the spectacular tower that brings a sculptural edge to the bustling heart of Chicago.
Situated along Chicago’s Loop District, the Aqua is a distinct construction that sits amongst a slew of standard glass boxes. The building takes a form inspired by Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, which is manifested on its facade of rippling balconies on its surface. The ripples however are not random and were a carefully calculated addition that found many challenges with their integration. Each floor plate in Aqua is unique, ultimately making the construction of the building quite complicated. The inconsistent floor plates also created variations in unit sizes – while some people may have a balcony up to 12 feet wide, others find just inches extending from their feet.
The balcony overhangs do however serve an environmental purpose. They not only shade apartments from the hot summer sun, but also protect the building from the force of wind – one of the most challenging aspects of skyscraper engineering. The undulating facade effectively mitigates the heavy Chicago winds, breaking them down to such a degree that thet building doesn’t require a tuned mass damper to stabilize it against wind vibrations and sway. And even if small for some units, every floor up to the 82nd can make claim to a balcony – something that usually cannot be done above sixty floors given heavy winds.
The tower was actually first designed as a hotel, but ailing economic factors required the building to be turned into a apartment complex. As such, the building hosts expansive views of the city, Millennium Park, and it’s inspiration, sparkling Lake Michigan. The building also maintains a swimming pool, sky gardens, running tracks, open-air hot tubs, a library and a billiard room. The tower’s garden roof is actually one of Chicago’s most extensive. Gang’s love for avian also found its way into the design. The architect paid close attention to how birds navigate in urban environments and react in the face of different materials. The complex facade design helps birds pick up on irregularities in their path, signaling for them to avoid the building.
It was in 2006 that Gang was invited by fellow architect and developer James R Loewenberg to submit a preliminary design for his Aqua Tower. Given that skyscraper design, which was then, and still is, a branch of the architecture dominated by men, Gang jumped at the chance. However, Gang is no diva. Speaking to the Guardian back in 2009 about her design method and the tower, “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.”