September 5, 2011
As a Denver architect and professor I am fascinated by the architectural paradigms of America: Wright's prairie-style and skyscrapers. The history of both can be found in the well-known city and suburbs of Chicago. However it is the skyscraper which has always intrigued me with its structural mystique and the implied power its height represents.
Chicago's skyscrapers may be famous for their technical achievements and functional expression, but they are often short on pizzazz. Now, Studio Gang has designed Aqua, an apartment and hotel tower whose architectonic facade of sensuously swerving, white concrete balconies jumps out from among its stolid brethren.
This elegant antidote to Chicago's straitlaced Modernism looks south to Millennium Park and the Art Institute of Chicago and north to the Chicago River, with the Hancock Center in the distance. Along the river, Aqua's curvilinear architectural precursor—the cylindrical twin towers of Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City (1964)—can be glimpsed from many balconies.
The 180,000-square-foot site on the western edge of Lakeshore East generated a tower-on-a-podium solution that would negotiate the 50-foot drop in grade between Upper Columbus Drive on the west and Harbor Park at the center of the complex on the east. The podium itself contains lobbies for both the hotel and the apartments, along with retail stores, a ballroom, an indoor pool, and other public spaces.
The balconies that extend outward from two to twelve feet were designed as concrete topography that would remind Chicagoans of limestone outcroppings along the Great Lakes. In this case, the rises and falls would extend vertically from top to bottom of the shaft. The different ripples allow unimpeded views up and down the facade from the various balconies.
Another compelling feature of the tower is its landscaped roof, 80,000 square feet in size. Located atop the 3-story podium, it is a swirling garden with paths and planted with colorful flora in light soil. A sustainable by-product of the garden is the mitigation of the summer heat-island effect so typical of asphalt roofs. In addition, it provides occupants with other amenities like a running track, outdoor pool, and fireplace.
Although the rectangular podium itself is stark and blocky in comparison with the garden and tower, its effect is softened by the two large concrete staircases that link the upper street level with the lower Harbor Park. One is a switchback stair and the other is a spiral.
Rectilinear floor plans and a squared podium are pro forma. An architectural advance at Aqua is the inventiveness of its swerving tiers of concrete, which not only heighten the tower's livability for the occupants, but add to the appearance of the cityscape for Chicagoans. The visual appeal of Aqua's curves works best when close-up or at mid-distance. Especially on a bright, sunny day when the gleaming glass adds luster to the sinuous balconies. Interestingly, from a distance, the curves flatten into straight lines, and Aqua blends in with the traditional Chicago skyscrapers of the past.