Aqua Tower / Studio Gang Architects

© gshowman via flickr:
© gshowman via flickr:

The skyline of can be seen as the timeline of skyscraper history, which started in 1885 with the Home Insurance Building.

The new Aqua Tower by Studio Gang is a highlight along this timeline, not just because of its height (250m tall) but also because of its sculptural condition.

The design was inspired by the striated limestone outcroppings common in the Great Lakes area (see photo below). But this sinuous shape is not just a mere formal gesture, but it is also a strategy to extend the views and maximize solar shading. And by looking at the plans we see a rational structure, true to the Mies legacy in the city.

I discovered Studio Gang in a lecture by Jeanne Gang at the 2009 AIA Convention, and I was impressed by her work. You can see our previous coverage of Studio Gang projects in ArchDaily, such as the Bengt Sjostrom Starlight Theatre.

More facts about the Aqua tower:

Striated limestone outcroppings © Studio Gang Architects
Striated limestone outcroppings © Studio Gang Architects
© Steve Hall @ Hedrich Blessing
© Steve Hall @ Hedrich Blessing
© Steve Hall @ Hedrich Blessing
© Steve Hall @ Hedrich Blessing

- 82-story mixed-use residential tower (819 ft, 250 m tall):
- 215 hotels rooms (floors 1-18)
- 476 rental residential units (floors 19-52)
- 263 condominium units & Penthouses (floors 53-80)
- 55,000 square feet (5,100 m2) of retail and office space
- 6 levels of underground parking.
- 8-story base (140,000 sqf, 13,000m2) with a a 82,550 sq ft (7,669 m2) terrace with gardens, gazebos, pools, hot tubs, a walking/running track and fire pit.

© Steve Hall @ Hedrich Blessing
© Steve Hall @ Hedrich Blessing
© SteveHall @ HedrichBlessing
© SteveHall @ HedrichBlessing

Location: 200 North Columbus Drive, Chicago, IL,
Architect of Record: Loewenberg & Associates
Owner: Magellan Development

Products in this project

Construction materials, Semi-finished materials: EFCO, PPG, Schaaf, Viracon

  • Metal and Glass curtain wall tower by EFCO
  • Glass: Town Houses by PPG
  • Metal and Glass curtain wall podium by Schaaf
  • Glass: Tower by Viracon

Facades: TRESPA

  • Exterior Panels by TRESPA

Walls: Endicott Clay Products

  • Brick: Town Houses by Endicott Clay Products
Cite: "Aqua Tower / Studio Gang Architects" 02 Dec 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed 27 May 2015. <>
  • Nicolas

    nice.. its just a rectangular shaped plan repeated to over 80 floors underneath those balconies, but the result is just great!

  • skeptic

    too bad it only looks good from 1-2 angles… it’s an eyesore with the rest of the skyline

  • skeptic

    also, the long expanses of concrete balconies allow a thermal bridge that negate any proactive efforts the window placement has on being “green”… should have thought about that one a little better

    • L dog

      the building quite “green”. the thermal bridge is not a problem because of the mass of the concrete.

    • james webb

      it is also possible that the balconies are isolated from the floor slabs. that method is standard practice in EU to avoid thermal bridging.

      • David Basulto

        Excelent point james, thanks for sharing.

      • jdt

        that is not the case. there is a thermal bridge issue, but developer driven architecture in this city will have little building technology advancements when the $$$ is dependant on getting people in the buiding. EU building standards are lost here.

        the real success of this building is the location of the building on the site and the form work construction of balconies for a developer driven schedule. nice building!

    • Second Rate

      Actually, the woman on the architectural boat tour packed full of miss-information stated that the floor slab IS continuous however, some kind of special paint developed by NASA was used to address this issue. I hope this paint can hold up to the special Midwest Winters!

  • alex

    yeah at first it looks great. but Im concerned that this is nothing other than a glass box with floor plates at 12′ o.c. or whatever, with arbitrary lines of demarcation that define their boundary…just as arbitrary as the box of glass boundary which they often violate.

    so obviously the location at which the plates stop is based on making some sort of cool topo map on the exterior…but this gives some parts of the building lots of balcony, little balcony, medium balcony, no balcony, and varying levels of sun exposure and drastically changes the way someone inside the glass box deals with the exterior….I wonder if this is driven by the cool topo, or by program locations on the inside?…or both…

    I’d love to know the methodology behind this.

    and I have a hard time believing the floor plan that has the many layers of blob-y plates overlayed on top of each other…thats cool…but my guess is the real thing is much less dynamic than that.

    ok, im rambling.

    • David Basulto

      Alex, take a look at the terrace criteria diagram included in the article, you can see more about how they were designed.

      • alex

        those are pretty cool. I guess I was more interested in how the overall form came to be…other than a cool landscape graphic of course. but that’d be like asking a magician how they perform a trick

  • alex

    also, seems like if the curtain wall is reflective enough it could trick the eye right through the “void” portions of the facade and render the whole thing as just this vertical, formal landmass in the chicago skyline…if thats the case…thats kind of nice.

  • hedgy

    I know this building .. i saw it couple of months ago when i was in chicago … it’s very amazing when you look at it closer from below .. it’s like something eat parts of the building ;)

  • christopher

    surprised as all-hell that this got finished. i remember Jeanne presenting this project at the MMFX conference in 2006 and after nearly every building over 40 stories abruptly stopped last year (at least in NYC), i thought this would surely be a strange Ryugyong Hotel in the Chicago landscape.

    props to Studio Gang for getting this in under the wire.

    also: “striated limestone outcroppings common in the Great Lakes area (see photo below).”

    i looked below and was expecting to see some pictures of limestone…did i miss something?

    • David Basulto


      You are right! I forgot to add the photo. Just added it to the article.

  • james

    i usually hate things like this.
    but this is actually very beautiful.
    great that something like this was actually realised

  • Dariusz

    this is a simply, brilliant idea..and it seems to work, sculpturally. Thermal breaking aside, I do love this addition to Chicago’s skyline.. :) Keep em coming!

  • WSBY

    great architecture! beautiful shape to live!

  • md

    gives more to the guy standing at the base than it does to the skyline…exciting at first then gets a little dull…probably the easiest to build blob-thing to date, however.

  • Architist

    An amaizing building. I love the idea addapting from Striated limestone.

  • n10e

    This is one of the best high-rise building for this year.
    Beautiful, simple, and easy to build.

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  • DPL
    • Arquipablo

      If you mean its “inspired”……but….this is so much better!!

      great building

    • David Basulto

      By the way, that project is very recent… for a competition that happened years after the Aqua tower started.

  • Richie

    It’s really just decorating a basic box to make it a bit more eye-catching but I think it’s a worthy effort and does manage to introduce a little more joy into the standard glass corporate tower.

  • WEe S

    Is there any issue with safety related to the balcony? However, it would be a new icon of Chicago.

  • panza

    very easy and very effective way to get the skyscraper “dressed”. since Mies van der rohe, skyscrapers have become very boaring glass boxes – and this is a good and relatively cheap way to make them look a bit nicer.

    but still, it´s just “clothes” – I miss something more conceptual about this building, underneath its clothes, it is just an average architecture

  • drinn

    Balcony rails look terrible short to fall down. If you check that one pic, huh!

    Amazing building.

    • sullka

      Not really, they seem fine. They’re under code for sure, otherwise wouldn’t been built.

      My problem with the balconies, is that even though they’re obviously the main them in the building, they’re pretty cheap and poorly designed!, just a slab of concrete with a steel railing. They didn’t even built a rim around the edge to receive any floor tiling or wood deck a potential owner might want to add.

      OFFTOPIC: Guggenheim New York has a really scary railing, not only they’re pretty small (waistline and I’m regular height) but they are also

      • sullka

        (Cont.)…..but they’re also inclined towards the void.


  • Lasse Lyhne

    I miss that the organic shapes actually engage the volume in some places instead of just being glued to on it..

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  • Ralph Kent

    I would have liked it more if the strata were not so regularly placed – that doesn’t happen in nature does it? Also if some of the voids actually went in, rather than just come up against the glazed facade. It does, consquently just look like a glazed tower with some bits added to it. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but prob could have been more successful.

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  • hmmmmmm

    Pretty basic deisgn, decorated with an undulating facade, hardly exceptional but easy on the eye……

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  • Wargo


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  • fotom

    I’ve looked at this building a lot online for about a year now. I’ve reserved my comments to myself prior to now, as so many people have raved about the design. I thought to myself, maybe I just don’t get it. Or perhaps it’ll grow on me. But it hasn’t. And I personally think this is perhaps one of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen. I’m sure it’s interesting to be near the base and look up at it, but that’s as far as it goes. Get a little bit away from the tower and it quickly loses its appeal. The balconies look very cheaply done, being just a boring slab of concrete, only to be outdone by those terrible railings. And once again, here’s a building that seems to only focus on the exterior design, not carrying the theme through to the interiors. The inspiration is there, the execution is not.

    • skeptic

      well put fotom. i would have to agree with you entirely. living in chicago, this building lends nothing to the skyline and as the balconies are lost once you observe it from more than a 5-6 blocks away. The balconies are a big problem as well, one unfavorable result of exposing the slabs is that there is no way to create a thermal break, and the floors become conductors that bring unwanted heat or cold to the interior. The sun shading that the terraces create mitigated this negative effect. Jeanne herself said this, “When you calculate it out, it ends up being pretty much even,” … “You lose heat through the winter, but you reduce your A/C throughout the mid season and summer. It’s a wash.”
      As much work as they put into researching and remedying a solution for the concrete and form-work, I think it was lost when they don’t understand scale in a high-rise structure, possibly due to this being her first tall building. The floors don’t resonate well from afar, only from directly below the building.

      • ReferenceSeek

        This is an extract of an article by explaining the lack of thermal breaks and the solution from Gang.

        “The 9-inch-thick balcony slabs thin out as they extend from the cladding line to the edge of the cantilever. This profile helps in drainage, notes structural engineer, David Eckmann of Magnusson Klemencic in Chicago, and keeps rainwater off the face of the building. The thin concrete slabs do tend to lose heat in the winter, Gang acknowledges. The architects and their consultants investigated adding thermal breaks between the indoor and outdoor concrete slabs, but this strategy proved too difficult to achieve for this project. Gang maintains, however, that in terms of overall energy use, the heat loss in the winter is offset by savings in air-cooling in the summer owing to the concrete canopies, the glazing, and the natural ventilation.”

        I believe that is fair to give the benefit of the doubt to a certified LEED Acredited profesional as is Jeanne Gang, that the issue was properly addressed.

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