An exploration of the world’s tallest tower designed by a woman, and the legacy it carries.
In September 2016, when the St. Regis Chicago broke ground, there were three major expectations for the project. Comprising three towers, the complex’s tallest structure would stand 1,186 feet tall, making it the third tallest building in Chicago after the 1,450-foot Willis Tower and the 1,388-foot Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago.
The project, slated to include a hotel and luxury condominiums, would also represent the single largest Chinese real estate investment in the United States with one of China’s largest real estate companies, Dalian Wanda Group, which partnered with Chicago-based developer Magellan Development. At the time, the project was valued at about one billion dollars.
The third and final expectation was that, the structure, when completed, would be the tallest tower designed by a woman – American architect Jeanne Gang – in the world. That third point is not heralded with much if any fanfare, even now, more than four years later, as the project approaches completion.
Perhaps the lack of attention is because Gang already held that achievement thanks to a 2009 project she designed, also in Chicago, thus making any further celebration a bit tiring. Or it could have been due to the rocky road the project and its stakeholders encountered once development got underway.
Two years into construction, Dalian Wanda Group wanted its money out, but it only succeeded in exiting the project last summer by selling its stake to Magellan for $270 million. The upheaval caused panic among some of the condo buyers who tried to renege on their contracts. But Magellan hasn’t given up hope; the local developer rebranded the project and secured a new hotel operator: St. Regis Hotels & Resorts, which has become the tower’s new namesake.
A representative for Gang declined to be interviewed, as did Chicago developer Magellan, saying that it had no executives fit to speak on the topic. Why wouldn’t they, or the profession at large, want to acknowledge Gang’s accomplishment? It may have something to do with the idea that female architects seldom seem to get ahead when they acknowledge their gender.
In fact, when it comes to designing tall buildings, there’s a gendered, and occasionally punishing, history. The female architect who had previously held the record for the tallest building designed by a woman was Natalie de Blois, an American architect who began her career in 1944. She was the first woman to become a senior designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). And in 1961, de Blois’ design with SOM partner Gordon Bunshaft for a modernist skyscraper at 270 Park Avenue in New York City was completed.
How much credit she deserved for her work later became a point of contention within the profession, as preservationists and architectural historians attempted to save the building from demolition by its contemporary owner, JPMorgan Chase. The bank ultimately prevailed and is in the process of tearing down SOM’s project only to construct an even taller skyscraper to take advantage of new zoning rules.
Gang first surpassed de Blois’ record in 2009, nearly five decades after 270 Park was built, with her design of the Aqua tower, another Chicago skyscraper that stands 859 feet tall. But she doesn’t have much competition. The only other female architects known for designing tall buildings included the late Zaha Hadid with her Miami condo project, One Thousand Museum, which stands at 709 feet, as well as her Beijing tower that measures 656 feet tall. There’s also a 745-foot mixed-use building in Johannesburg where the majority of the architectural team were women.
Gang’s approach to the design of tall buildings is significant for multiple reasons, including her view that height is not enough to make a tower extraordinary. With her design of Aqua tower, Gang introduced a textured layering of balconies meant to promote a sense of community among residents of the building.
“We’re not only thinking from outside in on these buildings, but also from inside out,” said Gang in an interview about her philosophy to designing tall buildings. “We come at it from the scale of the living space, then the scale of the social space, and the scale within the city.”
Within the St. Regis, the three towers’ undulating outline seeks to maximise views of Lake Michigan for units otherwise blocked by the structure in front of them. When looking up at the buildings from the ground, the geometric shape of a frustum, or a truncated pyramid, is visible. “That gives it this dynamic, rhythmic appearance,” said Gang in another interview with Chicago Magazine.
The complex has more than 390 condo units and over 190 hotel rooms, many of which have recessed outdoor balconies to reduce the wind Chicago is famous for. The outdoor space that Gang compared to an “innie” belly button are the highest residential balconies in the city.
The wind was also a driving force for the blow-through floor on the 83rd storey. The floor was left open, exposing the skeleton of the building and allowing wind to permeate the interior structure. “It’s not a big, fat building that can just overcome [swaying] with stiffness, which is the other tactic you can use,” Gang explained. “I’m always in favour of a lighter-touch solution.”
When it comes to how the massive buildings intersect with ground level, Gang has taken thoughtful steps to promote activity around the base of the towers. A thoroughfare has been carved underneath the second building to create a pathway for pedestrians to go between Lake Shore East Park, with its botanical gardens and lighted fountains, and the riverwalk along the Chicago River. Gang likely knows this walkway is how most people will interact with the complex and described her design as more of a bridge — the same way some may look back on her career designing tall buildings.
This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the third journal themed ‘Women’. The Red Envelope journals are published by LWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.
Volume I, Journal III is available to read in digital format here.