What's That Building? Jeanne Gang's Vista Tower And Aqua Building | WBEZ
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What’s That Building? A Towering New Addition To Chicago's Skyline

Lots of Chicago-area buildings make you stop and ask: "What's that building?" WBEZ’s Reset is collecting the stories behind them! You can also find them on this map.

A new building has made its way into Chicago's skyline — and it's the world's tallest skyscraper designed by a woman.

The 1,191 foot tall Vista Tower is expected to be completed in 2020. The 101-story skyscraper will tower over the city just south of the Chicago River in downtown Chicago, just a few blocks southwest is the world's second tallest woman-designed building, Aqua.

Both were designed by Studio Gang, the architecture firm headed by Belvidere, Ill.,-born architect Jeanne Gang. Her accomplishments fit squarely into Chicago's history with tall buildings, which includes the invention of the skyscraper in 1884.

“In Chicago, the public has an appreciation for tall buildings, maybe because it’s so glacially flat and we don’t have mountains," Gang said.

Jeanne Gang points at an architectural model of the  Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation.
AP Photo/Richard Drew
Jeanne Gang describes another one of her projects — also expected to open in 2020 — the Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation, to be built at The American Museum of Natural History in New York.

We recently spoke with Gang about Vista Tower, breaking the mold of Chicago's architectural landscape, and the male dominated industry. Plus, we got some great views from the roof of her new building.

Two people in orange vests walk among cables and scaffolding on the roof of Vista Tower.
Jason Marck/WBEZ
The roof of the tallest stem of Vista Tower — 1,191 feet up.

Making waves in Chicago's skyline

For Gang, the engineering of tall buildings — especially in Chicago — has always been a fascination.

She grew up in "a typical two-story wooden house on a typical street” in suburban Belvidere, and her family would often visit Chicago to go to museums. Back then, her favorite building was Marina City, the twin corncob towers on the Chicago River designed by Bertrand Goldberg.

“That building was so fascinating because you can see the geometry of it," she said. "There are the apartment terraces, the cars below them and the boats coming in underneath.”

This influence is clear in Vista's undulating design, which stand out among its rigidly rectilinear neighbors.

Vista Tower among its neighbors. VIsta is blue and has curving sides. Other buildings are gray and rectangular.
Jason Marck/WBEZ
Vista stands out from its neighbors — not just for its undulating lines, but also because of its windows in different shades of blue.

Gang, whose father was an engineer, said she was also interested in the critical technical component of Chicago's architecture.

"There has been a lot of innovation in the engineering of tall buildings in Chicago," she said. "There had to be: You’re building on clay. It’s probably one of the worst grounds to build tall buildings on. In New York they’re building on solid rock, which doesn’t make the same demands."

Vista continues that line of engineering innovation. The 83rd floor is Chicago's first "blow through" floor. It's completely unfinished and open to the elements, which keeps the tall building stable by allowing wind to pass through.

A worker stands in the corner of a high ceiling-ed 'blow through' floor.
Jason Marck/WBEZ
Construction continues on the 'blow through' floor of Vista Tower.

A symbol of accomplishment for women architects

Architecture is still a largely male profession. In 2017, just one third of newly licensed architects were female, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

And that holds true for skyscraper design as well. While Vista will be the tallest building in the world designed by a woman-owned firm, it remains only the third tallest building in Chicago and the 47th tallest building in the world.

But for Gang, Vista's designation as the tallest woman-designed building in the world is not the most important point of pride.

“When I’m designing a building, I don’t think ‘I’m a woman designing this building,’” she said.

The view from Vista

Because Wacker Drive is several stories high, the tallest part of Vista has two heights: 101 stories from the ground, but 95 stories from street level. Vista's top residential floor is 93 stories from street level. The roof is another three floors above that. From there, the views of the Lake Michigan shoreline are seemingly endless, and Navy Pier, Millennium Park and Lake Shore Drive look small enough to be children’s toys.

The view to the North from Vista Tower
Jason Marck/WBEZ
The view from Vista.

The view from Vista Tower, looking west.
Jason Marck/WBEZ
The view from Vista Tower, looking west.

Vista's first 11 floors will be a 192-room hotel. The rest will be condominiums. Sean Linnane, a vice president at Magellan, the developer group behind Vista Tower, said about half of the condos are already sold. That includes a two-story condo whose terrace will consist of the entire top of one of the smaller towers. In July 2018, Magellan reported it was under contract at $18.5 million.

Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain's Chicago Business and Reset's "What's That Building?" contributor.

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