by Andrew Blum

In Chicago, America’s greatest architecture city, Studio Gang is using technology to reinvent the process of building

“When we started thinking about this idea, we realized we were going to need a laser cutter,” architect Jeanne Gang says, standing over the machine in the back workshop of her architecture studio in Chicago. It’s an Epilog Legend 36EXT—about the size of an old Hi-Fi—and Gang and the laser cutter’s operator, a young architect named Schuyler Smith, are taking obvious delight in its mechanical purrings. On this spring morning, it’s cutting through a thin piece of Plexiglas, which will form part of a model of Aqua, a new 82-story apartment tower that Gang is designing for a site just east of the Loop, in downtown Chicago. The project required a laser cutter because each of its eighty-two floors is different—all vaguely rectangular, yet slightly variegated in shape, like a cloud or a human profile. The trusty Epilog stamps out cardboard scale-models of each floor plate as easily as a printer drawing shapes on a page. Stacked up on the table, they look more like a deck of cards than the future of architecture.

But indeed, Gang is at the vanguard of a new generation of architects using technology to reimagine—again—what architecture can be. Their sophisticated understanding of fabrication processes—not to mention their eagerness to experiment and a wild creativity—frees them from the conventions and economies of scale that bog down most building. “It’s just the way we think,” Gang, 42, says. “We look at the tools we have available and let them spark our imagination.” Focusing on how things are made means that “different” need not mean “expensive,” opening the door to speculative apartment buildings, low-budget community centers, and public park pavilions that are dignified and dramatic—not just something to keep out the rain. Just as Frank Gehry borrowed from aviation design to imagine new forms and to find ways of building them, Gang and her firm, Studio Gang, are melding digital tools, new methods of construction, and a sophisticated logic of sustainability to create buildings of startling humanity and variety.

Intended to be the centerpiece of Lakeshore East—the redevelopment of the old Illinois Central rail yards into a residential neighborhood with more than 5,000 apartment units—the Aqua Tower will be constructed using the architectural equivalent of mass-customization. “You don’t have a lot to work with on a building of this type,” Gang says. “But because the building is so long, you can develop something over the height of it by varying the floor plates.” Each floor of Aqua begins with the same rectangular shape but then oozes out to form open-air balconies that reach a maximum of twelve feet from the edge of the building. The little variations combine to create an image over the whole, not unlike when sports fans do the “wave” in a stadium, or individual pixels form a computer image. The building’s biggest bulges are positioned to take advantage of particular views, for example, toward Frank Gehry’s BP Bridge in nearby Millennium Park.

However, unlike those sculpted Gehry creations, Gang is working strictly within a set of constraints to minimize both cost and environmental impact. The laser cutter makes models cheaply and quickly, allowing the architects to work iteratively, even with variable shapes. Since it cuts directly from CAD files, the interpretative step (and most of the x-acto work) of traditional model-making is eliminated.

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Studio Gang’s design for Aqua Tower, a new hotel and high rise in Chicago, is defined by outdoor terraces that gradually change in plan over the entire length of the tower.