Aqua refreshes the Chicago skyscraper
-by Lynn Becker
80-story Aqua, a residential tower rising at Lakeshore East, is architect Jeanne Gang's stunning calling card to the main arena. (An updated and expanded version of a story first published, in substantially different and much better edited form, under the title The Third School in the Chicago Reader, May 5, 2006.)
A Tipping Point isn't something you'd normally want to associate with a skyscraper, but that may be what Aqua, an 82-story residential project at Columbus Drive and Lake, turns out to be, both for heroic-scale Chicago architecture, and for the project's fast-rising architect, Jeanne Gang. Are we on the cusp of a third school of Chicago architecture?
For almost a decade, there's been a residential building boom in downtown Chicago, but the quality of the architecture has failed to keep pace. Early on, developers learned a valuable, if destructive lesson. If you provide popular locations, the right floor plans and kitchens that are works of art, buyers will tolerate a lot of short-sheeting in the quality of the architecture. The end result? A surfeit of pug-faced megatowers rising like weeds crowding the classic Chicago skyline.
One of the biggest contributors to the plague has been James Loewenberg, the developer behind such dispiriting towers as 630 North State Parkway and the Park Millennium, at 222 N. Columbus. But a few years ago, at 71, he seemed to be looking for a bit more honorable way to end his career. He's in the middle of one of the most ambitious developments in the history of Chicago, Lakeshore East, going up on a 28-acre parcel east of Columbus and south of the river that was once supposed to become another Illinois Center but most recently served as a makeshift golf course.
Loewenberg began by hiring Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to come up with a site plan. It wound up winning an award from the American Institute of Architects. He hired two mainstream Chicago firms, DeStefano + Partners and Solomon Cordwell Buenz, to design several of the condo towers. While not exactly cutting-edge, they still made a clean break from the usual concrete blunders. In the center he created a handsome six-acre park, designed by landscape architect James Burnett in collaboration with Site Design Group of Chicago, that gives all those tall buildings room to breathe. Things got even better with 340 on the Park, an elegant 62 story tower by SCB's Martin Wolf . And then Loewenberg made his boldest move yet.
It began at a Harvard alumni dinner a couple of years ago where Jeanne Gang and her life and work partner Mark Schendel found themselves seated next to none other than - James Loewenberg. We talked about architecture, recalls Gang. That seemed to be the end of it, but six months later, her phone rang, and it was Loewenberg.
He said he would like to meet us, says Schendel. Gang says she arrived for a one-on-one meeting prepared to present her company's work, but Loewenberg stopped her. I already know what your work is like, he said. I just wanted to see if you were interested in doing this building. Let's get going.
Gang has a reputation for projects that are both meticulously researched and highly creative, , such as Rock Valley College's Starlight Theatre, where the roof opens up like petals of a flower to reveal the night sky. But Aqua ups the ant,e big-time. The $300 million building, scheduled to be completed in 2009, is the largest project ever awarded to an American firm headed by a woman.
Gang and members of her firm, Studio/Gang/Architects, started by rethinking the idea of a tall building. It must be in every inch a proud and soaring thing is how Louis Sullivan in the 1890's described - and defined - the innate ambition of the skyscraper. The elegant glass boxes that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe brought to Chicago, beginning in 1949 with his 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartments, refined Sullivan's prescription even as he reinvented modernism, but by the 1980's, in the wake of a contagion of bad imitations, postmodernist architects seemed almost ashamed of any hint of that soaring pride. They started pasting horizontal banding and neoclassical ornament onto their towers as if to camouflage their verticality, which was about as effective as hiding an elephant's bulk by adorning it in frilly lace.
Today brash verticality is back. If you need proof, check out the two new sleek curtain-walled towers along Wacker on either side of Monroe-James Goettsch's 111 S. Wacker and Pei Cobb Freed's Hyatt Center. These buildings almost seem to be saying, we're here, we're tall-get over it. Yet to architect Robert Venturi, who slammed Miesian architecture by saying Less is a bore, this new burst of boldness isn't progress but a retreat-modernism reduced to a revival style, no different from Georgian or Queen Anne.
Gang wanted to celebrate the verticality of her 822-foot building, but she didn't want it to be revivalist. So she first examined the way tall buildings relate to their surroundings. Most new designs, she points out, are presented in elevations - idealized drawings that present a building as an isolated object with the surrounding streetscape erased, and place the viewer at the perfect perspective where they can take in the entire thing at a single glance Loewenberg's marketers are presenting Aqua the same way.
The real way you experience buildings in the city, says Gang, is in the oblique view-looking up or looking down at it from another tower. More important to prospective buyers is what they see from inside the building. Developers know the quality of the views can be key to closing a sale. Gang intended to offer as many compelling ones as possible. Views are easy to get from the top, she says. But from the lower and middle floors you look between this dense forest of high-rises.
The Studio/Gang team constructed a supersize model of that dense forest, then used lengths of string to plot the endpoints of the views from Aqua's units. Gang discovered that by adding terraces that swept in and out along the perimeter of the tower, she could create views that wouldn't exist in a rectangular building. Where one terrace bumped outward you suddenly could see Millennium Park's Bean pop out past the edge of the Aon Center. Other terraces created views of Michigan Avenue, the lake, or Frank Gehry's winding BP bridge. Aqua, says Gang, starts with these really strong connections to the different points of view in the city. And 80 percent of the units-some part of a hotel, the rest rental apartments or condos-will have terraces.
After deciding where to put all the bumps, Gang's team studied how the sun would hit each apartment so they could determine the size and shape the terraces would have to be to also provide adequate shade. So they not only curve in and out along the edges of the floor plates, but each one is slightly smaller or larger-up to 18 feet deep-than the ones immediately above and below it, creating swells and valleys along the facades.
These waves of concrete neither conceal nor deny the tower's verticality-they sculpt it. There are no Miesian verticals marching in lockstep from bottom to top and none of the ornamental bric-a-brac postmodernists appropriated to cut their towers' height into so many chunks of layer cake. Aqua is something new: the facade as terrain, the skyscraper as a soaring outcropping worthy of Monument Valley.
The first time I showed the model to the contractors they were looking at me like I was nuts, says Gang. This curvy thing? They were just like-Whoa! I think Jim was the one who made them calm down. 'Look, you guys, it's very simple.' He rationalized it so they could understand it. (Loewenberg remains the architect of record for the project. Magnusson Klemencic Associates is the structural engineer.)
In some ways it's easier to build because it's not a continuous system on the outside of the structure, says Schendel. It's easy for the contractor to think of it as a unitized thing, like a brick. You bring in bay SR1 and put it there. SR2.1, put it there. It becomes a logical thing for them-check the floor that they're on, they know that they've got to put this series of bays in. And the window manufacturers will make them in packages of four floors at a time. They bring them out, and if it's in the right order it should go up effortlessly, flawlessly.
The Studio/Gang team proved they could be acutely attuned to the science of creating a high-rise megaproject that fit the budgets and marketing needs of the developers. This is how fine-tuned they are as an apartment-development machine, says Gang. They needed two more inches so that you could get that nightstand and that nightstand on this bed wall. We had to increase our building two inches.
Still, Aqua's uniqueness has presented other challenges for Loewenberg and his team. They didn't know of any other kind of building in the world that had unique units at every floor, says Schendel, which was both a blessing and a horror for them. It's a blessing because they can offer so many different conditions with the terrace combined with the units , but the horror is they have to actually manage showing 800 units that are all different. It doesn't look anyone needed to have worried; by June of 2008, most of the condo units have sold out.
Aqua has put a spotlight on Gang, but other young local architects are also starting to get their due. The work of Douglas Garofalo, whose Hyde Park Art Center opened last weekend, will be the focus of the first exhibit mounted at the Art Institute by its new curator of architecture and design, Joseph Rosa. Also opening this month is the Gary Comer Youth Center by John Ronan, who last year beat Pritzker Prizewinning superstar Thom Mayne in a competition to design an $84 million high school in New Jersey.
Gang, Garofalo, Ronan, and other local rising stars are on the verge of defining a third Chicago school of architecture, following in the footsteps of Sullivan, Burnham, and Root in the 19th century and Mies van der Rohe in the 20th. This new school won't be characterized by the kind of uniform visual style that marked the architecture of Mies or Frank Lloyd Wright, but by diversity, changeability, and an intellectual restlessness that compulsively tests accepted wisdom.
Gang sees the swooping terraces at Aqua not as just an architectural statement but as an urban living space residents will make their own. What I like about Marina City is that people's personalities come out in the building, she says. When you look at the building at night you see different kinds of light. Some people have Astroturf on their balcony, and it reflects green onto the underside of the balcony. I like people's life coming out. I think that's what differentiates us from older architects, the last generation of architects. They're trying to make everything perfect, but we want to see the life of the people living in it coming through. I'll be glad if they put Christmas-tree lights on it.
When reminded that most high-rise balconies, including those at Marina City, are chronically underused, Gang says, Well, this is a different generation. We like the outdoors. We want to be outside or closer to the outside. Because of the views that it gives you and because of the fact that you're outside, you're really going to live on this terrace.
Gang proposed putting curtains on the terraces, made of a plasticized material that's usually used to cover scaffolding and is available in different bright hues. The marketing people didn't like it, she says. They said it blocked the view. But you could really just minimize it-you can pull 'em back. The inspiration was making these terraces more livable throughout the year. You block the wind, but you also increase privacy. And during bird migration you could pull it and protect the glass from bird strikes-or birds from glass strikes.
It's not hard to understand the marketers' concerns-the concept is probably a little too anarchic for a $300 million building. But it's still a kick imagining a bleak winter day rescued by a Mondrian-like blaze of color across Aqua's facade.
With or without the curtains, Aqua is going to be one of the most striking buildings in the city. Construction is well under way, for a 2009 completion. You can see a photo-essay on the progress here.