Architect Jeanne Gang (Photo: Chicago Tribune)

Paul Goldberger wrote about architect Jeanne Gang and her new shimmery addition to the Chicago skyline (a tower named Aqua, which is quite evocative isn’t it?) in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Goldberger is particularly impressed with the distinctive 82-story apartment building, citing its remarkable blend of the practical and a graceful design.

Goldberger’s description of the functional aspects of the design is intriguing. Every element serves a purpose, and yet both form and function come together so beautifully.

For all its visual power, Aqua is mostly free of conceit. In an age in which so much architectural form—even, sometimes the best architectural form—has no real rationale beyond the fact that it is what the architect felt like doing, there is something admirable about the tower’s lack of arbitrariness. It reclaims the notion that thrilling and beautiful form can still emerge out of the realm of the practical.

Of course Gang is compared with the most famous female architect, Zaha Hadid. (This is an “of course” because it is inevitable that women architects become their own subclass, particularly in a field as male dominated as architecture is and has been.) Goldberger highlights the differences between Gang and Hadid: “Hadid is a brilliant shaper of form, but her buildings are nothing if not arbitrary, and the combination of her fame and her flamboyant designs has insidiously led people to assume that female architects tend to favor shape-making over problem-solving.”

Other female starichtects like Deborah Berke, Marianne McKenna, Cathy Simon and Denise Scott Brown have also built very successful careers by using a balance of reason, sensitivity and form. “Female architects like these share a high interest in modern design combined with a low interest in ideology. They approach design less as an opportunity to demonstrate a set of ideas than as a way of answering a series of questions about the nature of a place, a client, or a function.”

Some might want to probe the gender issues implied by this discussion. That is less interesting to me, having spent way too much time in my life chasing down that rabbit hole (which is a frustrating “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” to quote Churchill’s famous description of Russia). I am more excited by yet another gifted and visionary artist/architect, and one who presents herself in such an unassuming way. It’s the Meryl Streep school of Celebritism, a willingness to step back from all the glitter and exhibit that rare quality of self-effacement. In an interview with Gang in a Chicago publication, she spent her time praising the dedication and expertise of the construction workers who built the structure.

Wow. Now that’s rare.


The undulating (and seductively beautiful) surface of Aqua, in Chicago

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