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Aqua Tower

2010 July 21
by Caroline Nye Stevens

photo courtesy of Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing

225 N. Columbus Dr.

Aqua Tower is a topographical map of a city far hillier than Chicago. It is the rippling waves of nearby Lake Michigan, and a landscape of undulating sand dunes. Whatever Aqua is to you, it is more than just another skyscraper dotting Chicago’s skyline.

But what is Aqua according to its now famous architect, Jeanne Gang? She says that her inspiration for the tower came from the layered topography of limestone outcroppings along the Great Lakes. Jeanne Gang is the principal architect and founder of Studio Gang, which has recently become Chicago’s most talked of architecture firm. Headlining all of the news stories is the fact that at 82 stories, Aqua is the tallest building in the world designed by a female-owned architecture firm. Though this may be true, Aqua’s true stardom really has little to do with the gender of its designer. Its design is innovative both visually and conceptually.

Aqua’s design is in keeping with the trend of many contemporary buildings in that the nuances of its facade wouldn’t have been possible without the use of modern digital technology. The balconies forming the building’s wave-like contours were created using a surveying tripod with a built-in computer. This device provided the contractors with on-site interactive feedback so that they could match the bending of the building’s steel shell to the exact specifications of Gang’s design. The function of Aqua’s curves is twofold. First, the irregular placement of balconies provides shade for the building’s occupants, thus cooling the interiors. Second, the building’s contours effectively break-up and dissipate the wind, wind being a key problem in skyscraper design. Gang’s curves so successfully solve the worrisome wind problem that Aqua lacks a costly device typically found at the top of most skyscrapers: a “tuned mass damper,” which is a contraption weighing hundreds of tons, that stabilizes a building against the force of wind. How was it that Gang came up with such an ingenious solution to an ever-present obstacle? A problem-solver at heart, Gang’s original career plan was to be an engineer.

CNS 2010

Despite this original plan, Gang ultimately became an architect with a keen understanding of both engineering and design. Gang’s sensitivity to design is especially seen in the plasticity of Aqua’s façade. Every curve was carefully considered. Gang’s team conducted multiple studies of the building’s sight lines, using both physical and digital models, to inform the building’s final composition. That is why regardless of your location, Aqua always looks good.


Completed in 2009, Aqua is a mixed-use building containing commercial spaces, a hotel, apartments and condos. Have a look inside by visiting their website. To see all of the other projects Studio Gang is working on across the globe have a look at their website.

3 Responses
  1. Nye Stevens permalink
    July 21, 2010

    What a fantastic building! I’m fascinated to learn more about it. Your photos are well taken and presumably well chosen. Keep up your great work….

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