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The floor-to-floor irregularity of the curving balconies allows for

unusual views among floors.

Your first reaction to seeing Aqua Tower as it commands the Chicago
skyline might be, "What happened to that skyscraper?" It looks as if
some of its concrete floor fins might have been worn away over years

of exposure. Or perhaps some kind of pervasive organism has taken

over a sleek glass tower, crawling all over its facade the Blob
meets Howard Roark's Enright Building.
Of course, Aqua Tower was designed this way, by the Chicago firm
Studio Gang Architects, with Loewenberg Architects as architect of
record. And the result is stunning.
The tower might at first appear to simply be a marriage of two schools
of design that have ridden architecture's media wave over the past
decade: parametric design and Retro Modernism.
The former is a product of new and continually evolving design
software, such as Revit and Rhinoceros, that makes it possible to
generate, through algorithms, a vast array of architectural forms
including the complex organic shapes that have earned this genre the
derisive moniker of "blobitecture."
Retro Modernism, on the other hand, is the style that the early
Modernists claimed Modernism would never be. By the early 1970s,
Modernism as an architectural movement, complete with its social
agenda, was running dry, co-opted, watered-down, overdone, and
It nearly disappeared within the clamor of post-Modernism, only to
rise again, this time as an intact style, distinguished by sharp,
orthogonal white planes and sleek curtain walls with thin frame
profiles. Retro Modern continues to enjoy a wide embrace by
architects and the public alike.
Aqua's plan is a sleek modern rectangle, with a wavy line of balconies
surrounding it like a crazy bubble. But is a union of parametric design
and Retro Modernism the essence of Aqua? Only if you view the
tower as a stylistic exercise.

Architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang had something else in mind

when designing the mixed-use project, which contains apartments,
condos, a hotel, offices, retail, and parking.
Gang saw an opportunity to create what she describes as vertical
topography a contour of gentle hills and valleys on all four sides of
the tower that would provide the building's occupants with vantage
points for views of the surrounding city.
Contour models are usually built up with horizontal layers of
cardboard to define the high points, but in the case of Aqua, the
contours are sliced vertically instead of horizontally.
Designing with Desire Lines
Located a block northeast of Chicago's Millennium Park, at the corner
of Upper North Columbus Drive and Wacker Drive, Aqua Tower is
part of Lakeshore East, a large, multi-block brownfield development
planned by SOM for a 28-acre (11-hectare) site in the former Illinois
Central Railroad yards. The 82-story tower sits on a large podium that
holds an extensive roof garden, along with a pool, running track, and
other amenities. Aqua is also surrounded by other towers
design team built a large model of the neighborhood surrounding the
site, inserted a schematic tower, and then ran "desire lines" from the
tower to the view targets, such as Lake Michigan, Frank Gehry's
Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, and the BP Pedestrian Bridge,
also by Gehry.
Gang likens this process and the resultant view diagram to maps of
ski routes that show the start of the slope and the finish line at the
The design of Aqua involved the creation of "hills" on the facade,
formed by series of balconies sized and shaped to allow views around

the corners of the tower and through gaps between existing buildings.
The south facade's higher contours provide additional shading to
reduce solar gain in summer. The facade's "valleys," meanwhile,
admit more sunlight to interior spaces of the tower.
Studio Gang also used different kinds of glass on different facades
and in different areas of the facade, depending on orientation and the
varying depths of balconies. All of the glazing is low-e. On the east
and south facades, the glazing is reflective in areas without a balcony,
to provide shading.
On the west, the glass is tinted to improve its shading coefficient. Six
different types of glass were used on Aqua Tower clear, tinted,
reflective, spandrel, translucent, and fritted depending on the
orientation and the function of the interior space behind the glass.
Such features contribute to the energy-efficiency of the project, for
which LEED certification is sought.
An added benefit of the variegated facade is dissipation of wind loads,
to the extent that the tower did not require a tuned mass damper, often
used in high-rises to counter wind forces.
Balconies with Curves
Part of Aqua's aesthetic appeal are the elegant, sparely detailed floor
slabs that give the building its eye-catching identity. About 90 percent
of the residential units have accessible balconies; the remainder either
do not have balconies or the slab projections are too shallow to be
The undulating balconies are not attachments to the structure, as they
are in most tall buildings, but are actually extensions of the poured-inplace floor slabs, each one unique. The deepest balconies are 12 feet
(3.7 meters), while the narrowest are only five feet (1.5 meters).

The slabs taper from nine inches (23 centimeters) thick at the window
wall to six inches (15 centimeters) at the edge of the slab, giving the
balconies their crisp profile.
Each concrete slab has an impervious coating on the top to keep
moisture from penetrating the slab, and a pervious coating on the
underside to permit moisture to emit. The light-colored coatings help
reflect daylight into the interior, and effectively render artificial light,
such as the colored LED lights that trim the balcony edges and wash
the tower in broad swatches of color at night.
Even though each floor has a different profile, Gang says that her
firm's close collaboration with the general contractor and the concrete
subcontractor early in the project resulted in a coordinated effort that
allowed a floor to be poured and finished every three days during
If you fixate on the visual aspect of Aqua's undulating balconies and
undulating forms, you might miss one of Studio Gang's deeper design
goals to populate the facade.
In most residential buildings, balconies are included largely for the
purpose of real-estate marketing, but they often don't function as one
might expect, becoming outdoor closets for apartment-dwellers, and
standing empty at many hotels that limit balcony access.
Studio Gang intends for Aqua's balconies to be fully occupied, and the
generous balcony areas make this a reasonable possibility.
Aqua Tower creates an arresting visual effect on the skyline. But
perhaps its larger achievement is the creation of a vertical landscape,
allowing high-rise dwellers to enjoy glimpses of Chicago landmarks
and distant vistas from its hills and valleys in the sky.

In addition to their visual and spatial contributions to the building's

design, the rippling concrete floor plates of Aqua Tower also provide
shading and serve to foil wind forces, two significant considerations
in high-rise design.

Views from Aqua Tower include many Chicago landmarks, such as

the adjacent Aon Center (left) and Two Prudential Plaza (center).

A stark interior hallway within Aqua Tower.

A multistory spiral stair connects the street level to the park level at
the northeast corner of the plinth.

The bottommost flight of the northeast spiral staircase.

The ground floor of Aqua Tower includes retail spaces.

Some of Aqua Tower's watery visual effects are achieved through

varied use of glass types, including clear, tinted, reflective, spandrel,

and translucent.

The western street facade, along Upper North Columbus Drive.

Aqua Tower east-west section drawing looking north.

At the southeastern corner of the plinth, an outdoor

staircase that the architects call the "topo stair"
connects to the park level several stories below the
western street level.

The plaza along the south edge of the plinth leads from Upper North

Columbus Drive to the "topo stair."

Aqua Tower south elevation drawing

Along the eastern facade of Aqua Tower, below street level, a series
of multistory townhouses forms the building's interface with the
adjacent park.