Bertrand Goldberg

Recently, I spent an afternoon at the Art Institute here in Chicago.  Given a long line at the old entrance, on Michigan Avenue, we went around the corner to the modern wing, designed by Renzo Piano.  After checking out some modern art, contemporary photography experiments, and a handful of the classics, we found our way to an exhibit on the designer of the Marina Towers, Bertrand Goldberg.  

He started studying architecture at Harvard, spent some time at the Bauhaus Dessau in the thirties, and ended up briefly working for Mies Van Der Rohe in Chicago.  He came into contact with a laundry list of mid-century masters, from Josef Albers to Frank Lloyd Wright.  He opened his own practice in 1937, but was interrupted by World War II in 1941.  One of his projects from that era, the Clark-Maple service station, was an amazing pre-fabricated, mast-suspended, curtain-wall structure.  

The Clark Maple Service Station, elevation.  Courtesy, as are all these images (unless otherwise noted), of the amazing online archives of the Art Institute.  
Photo of the finished gas station.

During the war years, he worked for the U.S. government alongside Buckminster Fuller, designing temporary structures for the army.  He designed a field hospital unit that folded out of a truck, a small dwelling that converted from a gun crate, and a mobile de-lousing unit for soldiers and prisoners-of-war.  The gun crate house, in particular, reminds of today's container-house craze.  

Mobile field hospital.

Cannon crate field housing for soldiers.
Post-war, he took his interest and talent for designing lightweight, mobile structures to the Pressed Steel Car Company, working on plywood-shelled railroad cars.  This wide-ranging, experimental, technological approach to design was common to many of his contemporaries.  While he was trying to adapt molded plywood to train cars, the Eames' and Alvar Aalto were working on similar problems in furniture.  Fuller was drawing up geodesic domes, space frames, and pylon structures.  Eero Saarinen was working on complex, parametric forms in concrete, familiar to most of us in the TWA terminal in New York.  

Refrigerated rail car design.
Eventually, Goldberg moved onto the bigger projects for which he is best known.  His first forays into mass housing were kind of boring, typical slab-sided apartment buildings.  The North Kansas City Redevelopment, from 1952, is a good example.  He had some minor innovations, creating private courtyards and striving for diversity in the client base, in both income and race.  

In 1959, Goldberg began work on Marina City, a plan for a pair of residential towers on an under-developed site on the Chicago River.  A detailed, blow-by-blow history is available over at Marina City Online.  The towers were meant to be a "city-in-a-city", complete with their own post office, theater, shops, and the eponymous marina.  By compacting the urban fabric and pushing it upwards, Goldberg hoped to counter white flight from the city, re-invigorate downtown after business hours, and create a pedestrian alternative to car culture, echoing many of the ideas of Paolo Soleri was developing around the same time.  That said, the first several stories of each tower are parking garages.  This abundance of parking is one reason apartments in the towers are coveted today, as spaces are scarce downtown.  Still, the towers are a prototypical example of green urban design from an era when energy conservation wasn't on anyone's mind.

A snapshot I took from the architectural boat tour.  The round floor plates are the parking garage levels; the "flower petals" are the residential balconies.  
Often derided as "corncobs", (perhaps most famous to non-Chicagoans as the cover photograph on Wilco's Yankee Hotel FoxtrotI find the form of the towers quite striking.  In a downtown dominated by severe, rectilinear Modernist skyscrapers and excessively ornamented art-deco masonry buildings, the Marina Towers are a refreshing counterpoint.  The radial plan is structurally innovative, using a central elevator core for both circulation and support.  By dividing each floorplate into wedge-shaped apartments, Goldberg was able to give each space a huge window-to-floorspace ratio, a private balcony, and an equal share of the view.  That same wedge forms a forced perspective from the entry, making the living room seem both larger and longer than it actually is.  And, finally, the wedges circumvent most of the problems that one usually confronts when trying to force rectilinear furniture and fittings into a circular space, providing plenty of flat wall space to push furniture against. 

Typical studio, 1 bedroom, and 2 bedroom apartment floorplans.

Amazing parametric diagram of the concrete roof for the theater.  Today, the computer has eliminated this painstaking hand-modeling, at much cost to the beauty of the drawings but at great aid to their accuracy.  
Structural drawings for the rhomboid cross-section balcony beams, a startling innovation at the time.
After the Towers, Goldberg pushed the "flower-petal" plan system to the max, deploying it in more high-rises and a number of hospital designs.  Again, in the hospitals, he was ahead of the curve, establishing small "neighborhoods" within the greater building for better patient care, and employing the radial geometry to make each nurses station a panopticon, allowing constant patient observation.  While elegant in plan, these hospitals were pretty ugly from the outside, in rendering and photograph.  By this time, in the seventies and eighties, Goldberg had begun to favor funky rounded windows and other bubbly forms that I don't much care for.  On the other hand, perhaps he was just presaging another movement, the blobitecture of Frank Gehry and Karim Rashid.  

It was a great exhibit, and I'm glad I got a chance to check it out.  I always find myself inspired by folks who took a different path, wound multiple disciplines together into a coherent thread, and bucked conventional wisdom to create something truly new.  


  1. I love the corncobs, though I've never thought their nickname was deriding. On the boat ride I took, the tour guide said the name came from a reviewer saying they were "like corncobs in a sea of cigar boxes." How lovely.

  2. That is a lovely description. You should check out the exhibit, if it's still up -- the drawings are just incredible.