Feb 152010

Aqua Hides in a Forest of Towers

This is a building in drag, a skyscraper in a dress.

With Aqua, Architect Jeanne Gang has rendered an inherently masculine form feminine.  Almost.  I can’t think of a skyscraper that’s less phallic.  It’s an elegant, beautiful, altogether seductive effect.  But what’s underneath is not altered.  This is make-up artistry, not sex-change surgery.

The Aqua tower is draped in a very glamorous fabric, cut with a clever, artful pattern, but it remains a glass box.  The fabric’s folds create a bas-relief sculpture that covers only part of the building’s glass skin.  They are applied decoration, a disguise, designed to be useful as well as pretty, but they do not go so far as to become an integral part of the building itself.  Ironically, they actually make me more aware of the glass, and the box, than I would have been in their absence.  All good dresses do that for the bodies that carry them.  Does clothing make the person?  Or do muscle and bones?

The apartments in this building don’t gain a lot of functional outdoor space from these balconies.  Many have none at all and others get only an inches-wide ledge.  Operable doors leading to a visibly accessible area outside, in plain air, do generate breathability, even if the outdoor space can’t actually be much used.  I’m pretty sure that this building’s signature wavy balconies do enhance its livability.  But that wasn’t the designers’ main goal.

Architect's Rendering of Aqua

It’s that signature that was, had to be, all important to the developer, and thus, inevitably and appropriately, to his architect.   The building would have failed if its apartments couldn’t be sold.  Successful marketing was necessarily essential to Aqua’s concept.   The real value of the rippling balconies lies in their iconography.  They are a hugely successful logo.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a more cost-effective advertising device.  No building at this cost per square foot has ever gotten more attention.

Aqua’s exterior decoration provides a devilishly cheap way to reduce wind loads.  It makes the apartments nicer places to live.  It lends Chicago a pinch of much needed softening.  It does all that and sells the building, too?  That’s an amazing feat!  I hope you have one helluva a grateful client, Ms. Gang.

There remains, however, that pesky old question:  where’s the boundary between decoration and architecture?




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