Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Creating poetic waves in the skyline

CHICAGO/ARCHITECTURE. As I sit down to finish this story, architect Jeanne Gang and her Aqua skyscraper in Chicago are in the news again.
Today, the spectacular residential and hotel tower was named 2009 Skyscraper of the Year by international building database Emporis. The building is hailed for its fascinating shape and the brilliance of its construction, among other things.
“It has been an amazing feeling to be able to add something to the skyline and to the overall image of this city”, says Jeanne Gang (right) in an interview I did with her in her Chicago office.
Like everybody else who’s had a chance to stand beneath the 82-story wonder of Aqua, I had been fascinated by the ever-changing appearance of the building. The undulating balconies, different in shape for every floor, creates a wave-like façade that seems to change as you look at it from different angles.
Somebody called it architectural poetry, not a bad description.
“I’ll leave that to others to judge. We just took all these rather banal criteria, like the structure of the building or the sun-shading of the units, and tried to make it a whole that responds to it in a poetic way. I don’t know if we achieved that”, says Gang.
I contacted Jeanne Gang with little hope of getting a chance to see her on short notice. Lately she has been everywhere in the media. She was recently number 22 on a list of America’s up-and-coming in T, the New York Times style magazine.
If you want a taste of all the portraits and interviews with Jeanne Gang lately, you can check out the Chicago Tribune here, the New Yorker here or the Los Angeles Times here.
Or you can just continue reading.
You can summarize it all by saying that Gang is the coolest American architect at the moment, who designed the coolest skyscraper in the coolest city for architecture.
That is no small achievement, for several reasons.
To design a building that gets recognized in Chicago, it takes something special to begin with. This is the birthplace of the skyscraper and a virtual showcase for modern American architecture. All the big names have put their mark on Chicago’s skyline.
Aqua is one of the last skyscrapers to be finished in a great boom of high rise construction in Chicago that came to an end with the on-going recession. It was also built just a few blocks away from the most prestigious high rise project in Chicago lately, the gleaming Trump Tower on a prime location on the Chicago River.
The Trump Tower, designed by likewise prestigious Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (who also did Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building), was completed in 2009 and now stands as the second tallest skyscraper in the U.S.
The tallest, Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), is also in Chicago.
Aqua has clearly outdone the Trump Tower for recognition and appreciation.
Also, the 45-year old Jeanne Gang is exceptionally young for a project like this. Skyscrapers are usually done by the big boys in their 60’s from the big firms, like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
When I enter the second floor offices of Studio Gang Architects in Wicker Park, a trendy Chicago neighbourhood in what used to be the Polish and Ukrainian part of town, Jeanne Gang is seeing off a group of students.
She invites me in to her office at the far end of a big room humming with activity. The firm was founded by Gang in 1997 and now has 35 full-time staff. Aqua has put Jeanne Gang and her studio on the big stage.
The opportunity came by chance. Gang was in the right place at the right time, and the planner of the project didn’t want a “starchitect” but a fresh face to do the high rise centerpiece of a huge residential development near Chicago’s celebrated Millennium Park.
Gang takes me through the creative process behind the unique building.
“From the beginning I didn’t think much about what kind of iconic structure that could be placed there. I thought more of how the building could be connected into the city and how we could get good views from the units.”
The site for Aqua is right in the middle of a forest of high rises. Gang and her colleagues built a model not only with existing buildings, but also future buildings in the area. Then they attached strings to the Aqua model to see what the views would be from different parts of the building. A version of that work can be seen in the video below.
Instead of doing a traditional skyscraper with a flat façade, they got the idea to “bump out” certain areas to get unexpected views “around the corner”. They were talking of creating a “vertical topography” on the outside of the building, with undulating balconies that give an “inhabitable façade”.
“What started with exploring the connection to the city and the views ended up being this rather organic structure”, says Gang.
The undulating balconies were designed through a series of “slices”, one for each floor and all different in shape. Looking at the model horizontally, a landscape of rolling hills emerged. The “pools” of water between the hills would be portions a glass façade on the real building.
The balconies were not just decoration. They provide shade and reduce the need for air-conditioning, normally a big part of the energy-consumption in a traditional skyscraper. And they add life to the building.
“One of my favourite buildings in this city is the Marina City Towers (built on banks of the Chicago River 1962-64). I love them and how they were made so that people could use their balconies. People put out lights and plants, and you can see that there is life in the building. Some architects don’t like this and try to eliminate it”, says Gang, who calls Agua a “distant cousin” to the Marina City Towers (left).
She is very pleased to see people stop and admire Aqua.
“When you look at the building, you see a changing landscape. That makes it more intriguing, and you look at it longer.”
Jeanne Gang grew up near Rockford, Illinois, not far from Chicago. Her father was a civil engineer, working with bridges. Family vacations would typically be a tour of interesting bridge constructions.
She planned to follow in her father’s footsteps, but became interested in architecture along the way. She got her masters at Harvard and spent time working with famous Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas before setting up shop in Chicago.
Aqua is said to be the tallest building ever designed by a female architect, something every story on Jeanne Gang points out.
“That is something that never crossed my mind during the design process. But people who have done the tour of the building or seen it have said that they just want their daughter to know that she too could be an architect and design tall buildings”, says Gang.
She points out that skyscrapers not only has been the realm of male architects, but also the realm of corporate architects. It pleases her to have been able to break into that territory with her group of design architects.
“And at my age, it feels amazing to be 45 and have done a high rise. I’m very glad that I got the chance to do that”.

This is the first in a series of reports on architecture in Chicago.


It takes something special to be noticed in Chicago's forest of skyscrapers.


Jeanne Gang in her Chicago office with a model of Aqua.


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