Tuesday, June 15, 2010

AQUA: Chicago Tower Succeeds by Simplicity of Innovation

It is nice to be reminded that simple ideas can have innovative power. This is especially true in architecture, where simple ideas have a much higher chance of leaping off the drawing board and into reality.

Since the first renderings of Aqua appeared design magazines, Inside the Brackets has been an admirer. Since then, Jeanne Gang founder of Studio Gang, a Chicago-based architecture firm of almost 40 people, has seen quite a reaction to her first high-rise building design. The attention is justified.

Ms. Gang recently spoke at The Art Institute of Chicago in a nearly sold out Fullerton Hall. She covered a variety of her firm's projects in about 90 minutes, and Aqua played only a minor part in the presentation. The main theme connecting the diverse projects was Studio Gang's design process which emphasizes discovering innovative form through project context and function rather than pulling from a limited stylistic bag-of-tricks.

Taking the time to properly research each project's context and history to the level that Studio Gang does is as much a testament to their discipline as the quality of their clients. The result of this process was definitely evident in each of the projects presented.

At Aqua, Studio Gang studied the building's context by documenting potential views from all units. The result of this study was the varied balconies that then became the vehicle for the unique exterior form of the tower.

Aqua certainly succeeds in making a strong visual statement, but what makes the statement noteworthy according to Inside the Brackets is the simplicity and economy of the main vehicle of expression: the curvy and varied projection of the buildings concrete floor slabs. Aqua does not rely on expensive cladding materials or subject its occupants to impractical interior spaces for the honor of architectural aesthetic. The floor slabs are a necessary part of the 82-story building's structure and Studio Gang manipulated them to simultaneously enhance sightlines of major Chicago sites from the balconies (increases function) and give the building exterior an innovative form (increases beauty). The glass-skinned walls of the condo and hotel units behind the balcony edges are rectangular and therefore economical and functional.

Of course, authors who praise and generate media attention also write critically. After granting the building the cover of the May 2010 Architecural Record and a six-page spread the last paragraph of Suzanne Stephens' "Ahead of the Curve" article pans the building's overall visual impact and doubts its success in meeting the design thesis of maximizing sightlines for occupants and observers. Although this Inside the Brackets author has not been inside the building to experience the views first-hand, we find these images compelling.

In the end, there are many ways to judge and critique a mixed-use, infill development building like Aqua, but on the criterion of creative form from a simple idea it is certainly a winner.

For an interesting look at how this building might be considered "green" see this Aqua article also by Suzanne Stephens, Deputy Editor of Architectural Record, presented in GreenSource, another McGraw-Hill publication.
See also: Aqua Tower facts and photos from ArchDaily.

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