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Aqua Tower The Tower That Jeanne Gang Built.

Jeanne Gang spent her childhood holidays out on the road with her family, looking at the bold new bridges and roads springing up across America. Her father, a civil engineer, also took her to natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and the towering rock formations of the Great Lakes in Michigan.

Gang grew up to be an architect with her own practice, Studio Gang, and now elements of what she saw on those road trips have come together in her first skyscraper, the Aqua Tower, a $308m (£188m) addition to downtown Chicago’s architectural splendours.

The Aqua Tower, rising up in a dance of ever-changing concrete forms, is very different from its neighbours. Seen from the sidewalk, it really does have the look of a multi-layered Lake Michigan rock formation, albeit one that towers above the city. This is a Chicago landmark that has broken out of the city-wide straitjacket of right angles and smooth surfaces – as if Gaudi had taken up skyscraper design, or a spinning ballerina had morphed into a building.

It all began three years ago at a dinner following a Frank Gehry lecture in Chicago. Gang found herself sitting with architect and developer James R Loewenberg, who asked her to take a preliminary design for his Aqua Tower and make it sing. She jumped at the chance. After all, at 819ft, the Aqua Tower would be the world’s biggest skyscraper designed by a woman (or, to be more precise, the tallest building in the world designed by a female-run architectural practice).

Skyscrapers are traditionally seen as an expression of overbearing male libido, a sort of mine’s-taller-than-yours competition. So, even today, it is a surprise to find a woman building so swaggeringly high. (Zaha Hadid currently has skyscraper projects in five cities, but none completed). Gang politely dismisses such hackneyed assumptions. She is, after all, part of a team. “Our working method is very collaborative. Having said that, at least half, maybe more, of the staff here are women. I just think it’s natural. I’ve always wanted to build. I was encouraged to make and repair things by my parents. But OK, I can’t hide the fact that it’s great to have done a skyscraper, even if I never do one again.”

Gang, who wanted to be an engineer before she decided on architecture, grew up in a small town near Chicago. She says she thinks of the city as a mountain range rising up from the flat Illinois plains that flank Lake Michigan. “When we got the commission, we were partly thinking of building a mountain. But, being steeped in engineering, I also saw the project as a work of urban infrastructure. The tower is a machine plugged into the city – working for people – as well as being a kind of peak, or rock formation.”

Behind its weaving balconies, this 82-storey residential and hotel tower is a largely conventional building. Conventional in plan, that is, but unexpected in terms of form, and laced through with amenities and luxuries. Although it opens in the middle of the worst recession to hit the US since the 1930s, most of its 740 flats have been sold.

From its waltzing balconies, the tower offers fabulous views of the city and its other skyscrapers, of the recently completed Millennium Park, and, of course, of Lake Michigan. It also boasts a swimming pool, sky gardens, a library and a billiard room. Meanwhile, an eight-floor terrace projecting over the entrance offers a running track and open-air hot tubs. The tower’s garden roof is Chicago’s most extensive.