Jeanne Gang brings feminine touch to Chicago’s muscled skyline

Architecture Critic

Before we turn to an assessment of Aqua, a new residential skyscraper in Chicago, permit me a quick (and relevant!) detour to a sidewalk news conference in Lower Manhattan, held recently at the foot of the under-construction Beekman Tower.

We join the event, held to celebrate the completion of its 76-floor steel frame, just as developer Bruce Ratner is ceding the podium to Frank Gehry, the Beekman’s 80-year-old architect. Gehry pauses for effect. He looks out at the assembled crowd. He jabs a finger up at the tower. He says two words:

“No Viagra!”

At the risk of sounding foolish for trying to parse the triumphantly brief statements of the world’s great architects: Really? I mean, couldn’t you argue that during the recent boom years the easy credit that Ratner and his fellow developers came to rely on was to the skyline what the little blue pill is to, um, blood flow? That pouring 903 Gehry-designed apartments into an already saturated real-estate market is the sort of development folly or feat of architectural daring -- depending on your point of view -- possible only with the financing equivalent of a pharmacological boost?

Of course, that’s not what Gehry, who understandably cares far more about architectural than economic symbolism, was getting at. What he meant was something more direct, and old-fashioned, about sex, swagger and verticality, particularly since the Beekman is roughly twice as tall as any of his previously realized designs and because there were moments after the credit markets seized up when it looked as though it might have to be cut down to a much more modest size.

Which brings us back to Chicago, where the $308-million, 82-story Aqua is another of the high-design towers that just managed to slip through the tightening noose of the faltering market. Located just north of Millennium Park and finished in the last weeks of 2009, it was designed by Jeanne Gang, Studio Gang’s 45-year-old founder. That makes it the tallest building in the world by a female-led architecture firm.

In other words: No testosterone!

OK, maybe some testosterone in the ranks of the engineers and construction workers who helped design and build the tower. That much was clear when Gang and I rode the construction elevator to Aqua’s top-floor penthouse, stopping every few floors to pick up a new crew of tile-cutters or plumbers. It was like a mobile male locker room in there.

Still, the final design of the tower, which contains still-unfilled hotel space on its lower floors and apartments and condominiums above, very legibly carries Gang’s signature. And that signature is a memorable one: Aqua in the end is not as jaw-dropping on the whole as it looks from certain angles -- and in certain photographs -- but the building, with its undulating concrete-and-glass skin, does suggest a fresh direction for skyscraper design.

Balconies on each floor extend from the tower’s concrete core, but instead of following the rectangular shape of the interior floor plan they pursue a rich variety of curves. The balconies create what Gang calls “an inhabited facade” and give the building, as its name suggests, a liquid personality. The effect is particularly dramatic if you stand at the base of the tower and look up: From that angle the facade resembles the rolling surface of the ocean.

Aqua’s balconies are both a dramatic formal flourish and, in classic Midwestern fashion, solidly practical: They extend the apartments’ usable space as well as their views -- and help provide shade -- while allowing the tower to have repeating, cost-effective floor plates. The same problem-solving skills are on view at the multilevel base of the tower, which sits atop the the old Illinois Central rail yard.

A feminine touch

How much of Aqua’s substantial appeal, if any, has to do with Gang’s gender? Certainly its shape is animated by characteristics that -- at the risk of slipping into stereotype -- we associate with femininity and even the female form. But then so does Gehry’s Beekman Tower, which appears loosely draped in a fabric-like skin. Perhaps more to the point, Aqua seems impatient with the rigidly geometric and overly muscled shapes that surround it in the Chicago skyline as well as with the race to achieve height at the expense of architectural expression.

Aqua’s debut also comes at a moment when the profession is opening up positions of prominence and leadership for more women than ever before. Many of the top architecture schools in the country are now overseen by female deans, including Jennifer Wolch at UC Berkeley and Monica Ponce de Leon at the University of Michigan. This month, Sarah Whiting, formerly at Princeton, became the dean at Rice University’s School of Architecture.

In Rome, meanwhile, the completion late last year of Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Contemporary Art Museum -- along with monographs on Hadid published by Taschen and Rizzoli -- has put the world’s most influential female architect back squarely in the spotlight. The list of women at the top of prominent firms with impressive track records of built work grows longer by the year. It includes Elizabeth Diller, Kazuyo Sejima, Annabelle Selldorf, Winka Dubbeldam, Marsha Maytum, Billie Tsien, Carol Ross Barney and Marion Weiss, to name just a few. In Southern California the list is headed by Barbara Bestor, Jennifer Luce, Brenda Levin, Julie Eizenberg, Elizabeth Moule, Sharon Johnston and Jennifer Siegal.

Still, I’d wager that every one of those women -- not to mention the really skilled ones who continue to operate without much credit or exposure at firms run by men -- would tell you the field remains far short of real gender equity. According to 2009 statistics, women make up 41% of architecture students in the U.S. at the graduate and undergraduate level but just 17% of architecture-firm partners.

When Hadid won the Pritzker Prize, the field’s top honor, in 2004, she became the only woman to do so, and she is still dogged by the faintly sexist charge that she has a diva-like impatience with slights big and small. (Have you ever seen Rem Koolhaas inconvenienced? Or Jacques Herzog? Please.)

The most obvious blunder in Pritzker history is widely agreed to be the 1991 decision to give Robert Venturi the prize without also honoring his wife and professional partner, Denise Scott Brown. In that vein it’s probably fair to to point out that Mark Schendel, managing principal at Studio Gang and Gang’s husband, has played a significant role in the firm’s success, which includes an acclaimed community center on the south side of Chicago and a recent appearance on a high-powered short list for the Taipei Pop Music Center.

Two years ago, architect Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the architecture school at Yale, was asked in a video interview for a website called Big Think why there aren’t more women in architecture. After seeming to sense that he was moving along the edge of a rhetorical precipice (“Oh, my God,” he stammered, “I’m gonna, this is complicated”), he composed himself -- and proceeded to leap right into the chasm anyway.

“Women come to critical points in their career where they embark upon motherhood,” said Stern, 70. “And architecture is a totally time-consuming . . . business. Plus the global reach of architecture today, demanding unbelievable amounts of travel, national and international travel, has added to the complication. And so women . . . get torn between their desire to have a family and be with their family, and pursue their profession.”

Stern’s response raises obvious questions: Don’t children have fathers? Aren’t family responsibilities capable of taking time from men as well as women? But the really striking thing about the clip, for me, is simply the degree to which Stern seemed unprepared for the question, even a bit unnerved by it.

Against that backdrop, Aqua stands out as a welcome provocation. As Gehry’s one-liner suggests, skyscrapers and phallic symbolism are never far apart. Aqua doesn’t shrink from that history -- at 82 stories it stands out in a city of very tall towers -- but also gives it a memorable twist, updating the scalloped concrete forms of Bertrand Goldberg’s nearby 1964 Marina City complex for the age of fluid, digitally enabled design. It’s only when you back away from Aqua and consider it from a distance of three or four blocks that its effect begins to fade. From that perspective the negative space created on the parts of the facade without balconies leaves the tower looking somewhat patchy.

Generational influences

Still, the building’s significance is based on more than form. It suggests a changing of the guard in architecture that has as much to do with generation as gender.

One of Aqua’s real strengths is that it comfortably employs computer-aided design tools without turning them into a fetish. Gehry’s firm uses highly sophisticated computer modeling, but it does so to help turn his very personal and often intentionally crude form-making into buildings.

The architects a generation younger than Gehry, on the other hand, have tended to exploit digital technology fully and sometimes overzealously: Their streamlined volumes are so smooth that they seem to admit none of the imperfection that Gehry exploits so successfully in his best work.

Many of the architects one generation younger still -- those now in their 30s, 40s and early 50s -- seem to have quite productively split the difference between those poles, between crumpled and blobby forms. Their most ambitious talents -- including Gang, L.A.’s Michael Maltzan and the New York firms SHoP and Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis -- are keen to use the computer but also are clear-eyed about its limits and about the need to keep architecture from turning into a digital echo chamber hermetically sealed from the culture at large. Firms of Gang’s generation are also experimenting with a range of female leadership, including offices run by individual women, by husband-and-wife teams and by groups of partners of both sexes.

This emerging group possesses a flexible outlook on issues starting with but not limited to gender. In that sense Aqua is not just a rich piece of architectural invention and a milestone for female designers but an encouraging sign of where architecture in the widest sense of the term is headed.