Last weeks’ blog about the Aqua Tower in Chicago prompted much discussion and comparison with another recently unveiled skyscraper, New York by Frank Gehry. In fact, there was much resistance to putting Jeanne Gang in the same “Starchitect” category as Gehry, not because of lack of skill, rather an awareness the differences in their approach.
Gehry’s work has been simmering in undertones over the years of developments. There is the issue of funding by municipal bonds and city tax breaks being repaid out in fees rather than owned up in affordable housing. The style of work is Gehry’s “Deconstructivist” style, which presumes to disrupt traditional architectural forms with the great fanfare of a masterpiece. Yet it feels a bit of theatrics gone bad. Three of the facades of this building are clad with undulating shapes which seem to be melting off, exposing the basic rectangular box which is already laid bare on the backside. As for any level of “green” building, Gehry dismissed LEED as too gimicky, yet misses the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to environmental and social solutions of our time. The interior spaces and materials are fairly standard, save a few brushes of the magic Gehry wand in the wavy metal doorknobs and a poured-concrete Gehry sculpture as the lobby masterpiece. Stripped of these tacked-on elements, the building is a basic, standard box.
By contrast, the very structure of the Aqua building is unique. The very shape of the concrete floor slabs draws its inspiration from the surrounding landmarks and creates open-air balconies which interact with the air space around the building. These overhangs also serve as solar shading for the building, and rain drainage surfaces. The very technology of pre-cast concrete was pushed to new capabilities, from extending the range of a cantilever, to the texture and slope of the surfaces, to the forming of the undulating edge. Gang challenged all her team to push the envelope of technology and sustainability. For example, an 80,000 ft2 roof garden provides not only a park setting for city dwellers, but diminishes the heat-island effect of the structure.
So imagine you are a subcontractor, working on this project. The bid for the windows needs to include high-performance glazing to optimize solar load per geographic orientation while taking advantage of the views, and the glass is to be selectively fritted to keep birds from crashing into the tower. Having worked previously on the manufacturer’s side of the equation, I can tell you we would jump at a job like this. Is it more complex than just spitting out a bunch of standard product? Yes. But it honors the value of our product, it asks for us to engage at the highest level of technology, it respects our value. I am quite certain that the manufacturers who worked on the Aqua building proudly show off their work to other customers, and are eager to engage in further work with Gang.
So this is my hope: Projects which engage a collective process of workers, materials, and environment to achieve higher levels of “sustainability” will be the portal through which the construction industry can regain the sense of participation, the care of craftsmanship in our work, the creative contribution to our environment.
“ Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.” Updike