A tipping point isn’t something you’d normally want to associate with a skyscraper, but that may be what Jeanne Gang’s Aqua, an 82-story residential project at Columbus Drive and Lake, turns out to be. For almost a decade megatowers have been rising downtown like weeds, and the developers have been using classic skyline views to market what in every other respect is mediocrity on a grotesque scale. They’ve clearly decided that if you provide popular locations and floor plans and kitchens that are “works of art,” the quality of the architecture won’t matter to buyers.

One of the biggest contributors to the plague has been James Loewenberg, the developer behind such dispiriting towers as 630 North State Parkway and the Park Millennium, at 222 N. Columbus. But at 71, he seems to be looking for an honorable way to end his career–he’s in the middle of one of the most ambitious developments in the history of Chicago, Lakeshore East. It’s going up on a 28-acre parcel east of Columbus and south of the river that was once supposed to become another Illinois Center but most recently served as a makeshift golf course.

Loewenberg began by hiring Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to come up with a site plan, which wound up winning an award from the American Institute of Architects. He hired two mainstream Chicago firms, DeStefano + Partners and Solomon Cordwell Buenz, to design several of the condo towers, which, while not exactly cutting-edge, make a clean break from the usual concrete blunders. In the center he created a handsome six-acre park that gives all those tall buildings room to breathe. And then he made his boldest move.

At a Harvard alumni dinner last year he found himself sitting next to Jeanne Gang and her life and work partner, Mark Schendel. “We talked about architecture,” says Gang. That seemed the end of it, but six months later Loewenberg called. “He said he would like to meet us,” says Schendel. Gang says she arrived for a one-on-one meeting prepared to present her company’s work, but Loewenberg told her, “I already know what your work is like. I just wanted to see if you were interested in doing this building. Let’s get going.”

Gang has a reputation for projects that are bold yet pragmatic, such as Rock Valley College’s Starlight Theatre, where the roof opens up like petals of a flower to reveal the night sky. But Aqua ups the ante big-time. The $300 million building, scheduled to be completed in 2009, is the largest project ever awarded to an American firm headed by a woman. What’s more, it’s a sign that a new generation of Chicago architects is coming into its own.

Gang and members of her firm, Studio/Gang/Architects, started by rethinking the idea of a tall building. “It must be in every inch a proud and soaring thing” is how Louis Sullivan described the skyscraper in the 1890s. The elegant glass boxes Ludwig Mies van der Rohe began building in 1949 refined that idea as they redefined modernism, but they were followed by innumerable bad imitations. By the 80s postmodernist architects seemed almost ashamed of any hint of soaring pride and tried to conceal the verticality of their towers with horizontal bands and neoclassical ornament, which was about as effective as dressing an elephant in a tutu.

Today brash verticality is back. If you need proof, check out the two new sleek curtain-walled towers along Wacker on either side of Monroe–James Goettsch’s 111 S. Wacker and Pei Cobb Freed’s Hyatt Center. These buildings almost seem to be saying, we’re here, we’re tall–get over it. Yet to architect Robert Venturi, who slammed Miesian architecture by saying “Less is a bore,” this new burst of boldness isn’t progress but a retreat–modernism reduced to a revival style, no different from Georgian or Queen Anne.

Gang wanted to celebrate the verticality of her 822-foot building, but she didn’t want it to be revivalist. So she first examined the way tall buildings relate to their surroundings. Most new designs, she points out, are presented as idealized drawings that leave out everything that’s around a building and place viewers in a spot where they can take in the whole thing in a single glance, even though the actual streetscape makes that impossible. (Loewenberg’s marketers are selling Aqua the same way.) “The real way you experience buildings in the city,” she says, “is in the oblique view–looking up or looking down at it from another tower.”

More important was the perspective from inside the building. Developers want views, and Gang intended to offer as many compelling ones as possible. “Views are easy to get from the top,” she says. “But from the lower and middle floors you look between this dense forest of high-rises.” The Studio/Gang team constructed a supersize model of that dense forest, then used lengths of string to plot the endpoints of the views from Aqua’s units. Gang discovered that by adding terraces that swept in and out along the perimeter of the tower, she could create views that wouldn’t exist in a rectangular building. Where one terrace bumped outward you suddenly could see Millennium Park’s Bean pop out past the edge of the Aon Center. Other terraces created views of Michigan Avenue, the lake, or Frank Gehry’s winding BP bridge. Aqua, says Gang, “starts with these really strong connections to the different points of view in the city.” And 80 percent of the units–some part of a hotel, the rest rental apartments or condos–will have terraces.

After deciding where to put all the bumps, Gang’s team studied how the sun would hit each apartment so they could determine the size and shape the terraces would have to be to also provide adequate shade. So they not only curve in and out along the edges of the floor plates, but each one is slightly smaller or larger–up to 18 feet deep–than the ones immediately above and below it, creating swells and valleys along the facades.

These waves of concrete neither conceal nor deny the tower’s verticality–they sculpt it. There are no Miesian verticals marching in lockstep from bottom to top and none of the ornamental bric-a-brac postmodernists appropriated to cut their towers’ height into so many chunks of layer cake. Aqua is something new: the facade as terrain, the skyscraper as a soaring outcropping worthy of Monument Valley.

“The first time I showed the model to the contractors they were looking at me like I was nuts,” says Gang. “This curvy thing? They were just like–Whoa! I think Jim was the one who made them calm down. ‘Look, you guys, it’s very simple.’ He rationalized it so they could understand it.” (Loewenberg remains the architect of record for the project.)

“In some ways it’s easier to build because it’s not a continuous system on the outside of the structure,” says Schendel. “It’s easy for the contractor to think of it as a unitized thing, like a brick. You bring in bay SR1 and put it there. SR2.1, put it there. It becomes a logical thing for them–check the floor that they’re on, they know that they’ve got to put this series of bays in. And the window manufacturers will make them in packages of four floors at a time. They bring them out, and if it’s in the right order it should go up effortlessly, flawlessly.”

The Studio/Gang team proved they could be acutely attuned to the science of creating a high-rise megaproject that fit the budgets and marketing needs of the developers. “This is how fine-tuned they are as an apartment-development machine,” says Gang. “They needed two more inches so that you could get that nightstand and that nightstand on this bed wall. We had to increase our building two inches.”

Aqua has put a spotlight on Gang, but other young local architects are also starting to get their due. The work of Douglas Garofalo, whose Hyde Park Art Center opened last weekend, will be the focus of the first exhibit mounted at the Art Institute by its new curator of architecture and design, Joseph Rosa. Also opening this month is the South Shore Drill Team’s Gary Comer Youth Center by John Ronan, who last year beat Pritzker Prize-winning superstar Thom Mayne in a competition to design an $84 million high school in New Jersey.

Gang, Garofalo, Ronan, and other local rising stars are on the verge of defining a third Chicago school of architecture, following in the footsteps of Sullivan, Burnham, and Root in the 19th century and Mies van der Rohe in the 20th. This new school won’t be characterized by the kind of uniform visual style that marked the architecture of Mies or Frank Lloyd Wright, but by diversity, changeability, and an intellectual restlessness that compulsively tests accepted wisdom.

Assessing the impact of a school of architecture as that architecture is evolving isn’t easy. In the 30s Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson pulled a set of elements from the vocabulary of contemporary buildings–flat roofs, severe geometry, unornamented white walls–to define what they claimed was the one true architecture of their time, the International Style. They managed to shove the work of Frank Lloyd Wright to the sidelines, yet it wasn’t the International Style that had the deepest influence on the 20th century. Rather it was Wright and his fellow Prairie School architects, whose organic, ground-hugging homes set the stage for the triumph of the American suburb.

That caveat aside, there clearly is a new global spirit in architecture, and its watchwords are freedom and spontaneity. Of course it’s hubris to think you can make a building spontaneous–the laws of physics are unforgiving. But the appearance of spontaneity is possible. In the ideal world of Cecil Balmond, the engineering genius behind the work of cutting-edge architects such as Rem Koolhaas and Alvaro Siza, everything is in flux. A floor folds to become a wall, twists to form a supporting column, then folds again to become a ceiling. Structure is a single restless organism.

This sensibility has been embraced by Gang and the other third-school architects. Both Gang and Schendel worked with Koolhaas on some of his early projects, and you can see his influence in their work. But a few things set the Chicago upstarts apart. First is their insistence on pragmatism, something that has long distinguished Chicago architecture. Many of today’s architects are theorists first, happy just to get their renderings published. “Don’t talk–build,” was Mies’s famous response to the theorists of his day. Our greatest architects always seemed to enjoy getting their hands dirty, and the world of business always gave them plenty of opportunities. Sullivan’s designs got built because his partner, Dankmar Adler, was a member of the city’s corporate society. Burnham and Root did some of their best work for penny-pinching real estate speculators. And by the time of his death Mies was doing buildings for some of the most powerful institutions in the city, including the federal government and IBM. Unfortunately, for over a decade the best of the city’s young architects were all but shut out of the segment of the market that dominated new construction–residential building. Now that Gang is working for one of the most powerful developers the city’s ever had, that market may be opening up.

Another thing that sets this new generation of architects apart is their profound interest in how architecture is experienced. Far too often new buildings are seen primarily as abstract forms, and their designers display little curiosity about what it’s like to inhabit them. People fell in love with the fantastical titanium swirls of Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilbao but not the galleries inside. Chicago’s young architects want something more–to be able to see the stars from inside a theater, to stand on the porch of a nature center surrounded by mesh that makes it feel like a bird’s nest.

Gang sees the swooping terraces at Aqua not as just an architectural statement but as an urban living space residents will make their own. “What I like about Marina City is that people’s personalities come out in the building,” she says. “When you look at the building at night you see different kinds of light. Some people have Astroturf on their balcony, and it reflects green onto the underside of the balcony. I like people’s life coming out. I think that’s what differentiates us from older architects, the last generation of architects. They’re trying to make everything perfect, but we want to see the life of the people living in it coming through. I’ll be glad if they put Christmas-tree lights on it.”

When reminded that most high-rise balconies, including those at Marina City, are chronically underused, Gang says, “Well, this is a different generation. We like the outdoors. We want to be outside or closer to the outside. Because of the views that it gives you and because of the fact that you’re outside, you’re really going to live on this terrace.”

Gang proposed putting curtains on the terraces, made of a plasticized material that’s usually used to cover scaffolding and is available in different bright hues. “The marketing people didn’t like it,” she says. “They said it blocked the view. But you could really just minimize it–you can pull ’em back. The inspiration was making these terraces more livable throughout the year. You block the wind, but you also increase privacy. And during bird migration you could pull it and protect the glass from bird strikes–or birds from glass strikes.” It’s not hard to understand the marketers’ concerns–the concept is probably a little too anarchic for a $300 million building. But it’s still a kick imagining a bleak winter day rescued by a Mondrian-like blaze of color across Aqua’s facade.

With or without the curtains, Aqua is going to be one of the most striking buildings in the city. If it’s a commercial success, more architects of the new generation may get big residential and commercial projects. And great architecture could return to Chicago’s main economic arena.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth, John Ronan Architect, Joeff Davis; illustration/Studio/Gang/Architects.