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Dynamic Range

Scaling Aqua

It was not so long ago that three young explorers embarked on a clandestine adventure to the summit of one of Chicago’s newest landmarks.

In December of 2009 Aqua was still under construction. When completed a few months later the 82-story residential and commercial tower on East Waterside Drive would become a fresh and breathtaking addition to the Chicago skyline. With its undulating concrete balconies rippling out in swells and waves, the building’s man-made topography pays homage to the natural world, with its peaks and valleys, tidal pools and rolling hills, in a way that few other structures do.  

But when these anonymous urban explorers ventured out, there was still construction scaffolding on the outside of the building, Aqua was only partially occupied, and the interiors of the upper floors were as yet unfinished. The three snuck into the building by foot, took the elevators up to the 54th floor, and then walked up another 28 stories. They explain what happened next on their blog, No Promise of Safety:

Several hard breathing minutes later we were at the penthouse level and searching for an easy way to the roof. Alas, the door was a thickly built, plywood temp-job, complete with heavy-duty chains and high end padlocks. ‘I guess it’s the hard way, then,’ I muttered to myself.

The hard way turned out to be scaling the steel lattice of a construction hoist attached to the outside of the building:

We lowered ourselves down onto the nearby connection posts that held the mast to the building…Once our feet were placed on two of these round tubes, we slowly nudged our legs to the half-way point and pushed off from the building, hovered for a moment in balance, and leaned over and caught the mast in our hands. From building to mast was about seven feet. Then of course it was up the mast about 20 feet to roof level and back over a similar set of supports. All of this maneuvering having been done a little over 800 feet above street level, with no fall protection…This kind of thing is what we like to call a near life experience.

To document their trek, the three explorers photographed themselves perched on the ledge of Aqua’s roof, Chicago’s glittering skyline visible behind them.

One might reasonably think the folks responsible for the building would be upset by this unsanctioned trip. But Jeanne Gang, Aqua’s lead architect and the head of Studio Gang Architects, recognized the impulse to explore. Gang, who has been honored for her work by the American Institute of Architects and profiled in The New Yorker Magazine, says that while she was in graduate school she wandered into Chicago’s iconic Marina Towers, and took the elevator up as high as it would go. “I said, I wonder if I can get higher,” Gang recalls. “And low and behold I was able to get onto the spot where the central core goes through the roof.”

These kinds of adventures fit perfectly into the urban theory and world view espoused by Gang and her collaborators, and the mindset they had when conceiving Aqua’s natural forms. “The building aims to inspire exploration,” they write in their new book Reveal, which traces the construction, theory and ephemera of Aqua and other projects. “For many, the built environment has become so immense and mysterious that exploring it offers a physical, spiritual, and psychological reward equal to traversing the remote, craggy rock formations of natural terrains.”

Gang celebrated the release of the book with a talk at StopSmiling in early April, moderated by J.C. Gabel. In it she goes into greater detail about why she thinks cities have replaced natural topography, especially in a place as flat as Chicago. You can hear an excerpt from her talk in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Jeanne Gang was interviewed at an event presented by StopSmiling in April. Click here to hear the event in its entirety, and click here to subscribe to the Dynamic Range podcast.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of urban explorers and their respective genders.

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