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City Hyde Park in Chicago

Can ambitious highrise architect Jeanne Gang and big developers build a better city together?

There are some things we've all heard about apartment towers. You can't have a neighbourhood in a high-rise. Today's tall buildings are flimsy energy hogs. They all look the same.

But what if that conventional wisdom is wrong? Chicago architect Jeanne Gang is coming to Canada, and her firm Studio Gang has ambitions that undercut everything we think we know about tower living.

In an interview this week, Gang revealed that her firm will be designing a rental apartment building in midtown Toronto. Gang is widely seen as one of the profession's leaders, and the most prominent female architect in the world. She was a winner of the $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant" in 2011. And her firm is designing prestigious cultural projects, including an expansion to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Architect Jeanne Gang

But it also works on housing, including a project for Slate Asset Management, and its ambitions are high.

"There isn't a lot of architectural attention to residential buildings, and that's where we spend so much time," Gang, 52, said. "They're the DNA of the city, and they could be done so much better."

Details of the Toronto project aren't yet firm, but the site at 1 Delisle Ave. is near the intersection of Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue. The area could prove to be a laboratory for architectural change: Slate has bought numerous properties here, including the office building adjacent to the Studio Gang site, and aims to remake this sleepy pocket of office towers.

The Aqua Tower in Chicago Steve Hall / Studio Gang

The architects will be able to think across property lines and consider the needs of both workers and residents.

Indeed, Studio Gang's work on condo, apartment and student residence buildings, including Aqua in Chicago, suggests that it is ready for this challenge.

Slate vice-president Brandon Donnelly says the company hired Studio Gang for its new perspective on the city and its "focus on research."

Gang "has really been investigating what's possible within [towers]: How do you innovate?"

A balcony of Aqua Tower in Chicago.

Where other elite architects avoid the many difficulties of housing, “I like the challenge of it,” Gang says. “In a building like that, a lot is structure and a lot is math” – physics and economics, in other words – “and there’s this narrow band to make it interesting.”

Studio Gang's work so far suggests a few ways to change things up. At Chicago's Aqua Tower, completed in 2009, Gang wrapped a 250-metre rectangular tower with balconies that appear to ripple: the edges of the protruding balcony slabs are curved, and they bulge in different places on different floors. From a distance, this produces a beautiful visual effect; from the balconies themselves, people can look above and below to see their neighbours on their own balconies.

"It was about letting people connect to the outside and connect to their neighbours in an interesting way," Gang says. This breaks down the old relationship between the high apartment and the distant skyline. "Our studio is interested in how architecture can build stronger communities, stronger relationships. Let's not pretend you are in a single-family house. This is a city."

At City Hyde Park, protruding balconies allow neighbours in adjacent apartments to see each other.

The same logic prevails, with a different expression, at its City Hyde Park project. Concrete balconies that protrude at diagonal angles – serving a structural purpose as well – provide oblique views between them and across the city.

At its North Residential Commons at the University of Chicago, curved towers with rippling façades provide a sculptural response to the university's Collegiate Gothic, and carefully shape public plazas. Within, multilevel "hubs" bring students from different floors together, cutting through the floor plates of the tower and producing three-leveled spaces with grand stairs and great views. The floor-by-floor hierarchy of the apartment building gets blown up.

The North Residential Commons at the University of Chicago.

It's easy to imagine how such moves might translate to an apartment building. Spaces for socializing and co-working? Outdoor spaces that serve to bring people together, maybe in or on the building next door? "We're considering the whole community," Donnelly says. "By thinking of city-building rather than individual tower buildings, it opens up new possibilities." Also under consideration, he says, are "some expensive sustainability strategies."

That, if borne out, will be the most important aspect of this project. It's crucially important, in achieving a low-carbon society, that new buildings perform well. They'll be with us for a long time. And yet, condos do not always achieve this goal. Rental, as Donnelly points out, brings a different business logic. "We aren't going to make a few modifications and move on. We're planning to stay forever."

The North Residential Commons features curved towers with rippling façades provide a sculptural response to the university’s Collegiate Gothic.

By contrast, most residential development in North America is in the form of condominiums; there, real estate companies sell units and move on, retaining little or no long-term interest. They don't care about how the building stands up in the long term, or how energy-efficient it is; that is someone else's problem.

And it could set new precedents in a risk-averse business. Toronto is moving inexorably toward higher densities, though without the robust urban design that has sculpted downtown Vancouver. Toronto also, as with most Canadian cities, has a large portion of its citizens already living in 1960s apartment buildings that are aging and need repairs and rethinking to serve the city.

So what if one tower can help shape hundreds more – by suggesting possibilities that are real – yet also reach for the sky?