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October 22, 2017
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Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City stands out in Chicago as one of its most iconic architectural structures (Source: flickr.com).

Standing at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Lower Wacker Street in Chicago, one's eye can't help but be drawn towards the two towering figures looming on the north bank of the Chicago River. Chicagoans affectionately call these strange silos "the corncob towers," so named because of their honeycomb-shaped, somewhat gauche appearance. But, stand on the Michigan Avenue Bridge and stare for long enough at the concrete cylinders shining in the light reflected off the modern glass buildings, and the genius that is Marina City will be revealed. 

The Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibit
showcased some of Goldberg's early
sketches (Source: artic.edu).

Who was the mind behind the wonder that is Marina City? Architect and visionary Bertrand Goldberg, whose planning and design stemmed from a passion for a different sort of urban living. His enthusiasm for convenience and city living translated into a lifelong adventure in architecture. It also forged a movement in Chicagoans to embrace downtown living and turn their back on long commutes from suburban communities.

I first discovered Goldberg at the Art Institute of Chicago's comprehensive retrospective exhibition of his work. The exhibit positioned Goldberg's career within a historical framework, from his experimental origins at the Bauhaus to his revolutionary plans for postwar urban living. Some of the most interesting pieces shown were the little-known examples of his graphic and furniture designs. The exhibit was as informative as it was a fitting homage to one of Chicago's great inventors.

In his lifetime, Goldberg formed close bonds with some the world's most prominent architects, including his mentor, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. As his practice increased in scale, Goldberg's alternative urban model for "the city within a city" found a strong following of international architects and critics including Reyner Banham, the Japanese Metabolists, and members of the British Archigram group.

Goldberg's Marina City allows every single living room and bedroom to have a balcony by using the balcony's shape to inform the building's overall design - pure ingenuity.

Goldberg's interest in the social dimension of architecture was reflected in his massively immensely designs. In 1959, he put pen to paper to create his most iconic structure. Perhaps one of the most salient buildings in downtown Chicago, Marina Village channels a futurist concept circa 1962. Standing 60 feet tall, the lowest section sits at the edge of the water providing boat slips to residents with yachts. Street-level is a community of every-day amenities, including one of Chicago's best steak restaurants, a grocery market and a dry cleaner. Above that is the parking lot - a number of floors of open concept parking spaces that circle upwards to the floors of residential condos.

Inside, Marina City explores the relationship between Goldberg's rigorous framework for the apartment units and the informal development of the interior spaces by residents throughout the building's history. Marina City's central location, apartments and amenities, including the marina, have long attracted creative and engaged city-dwellers, and continues to form a community of diverse residents who share Goldberg's passion for urban living. 

Another key feature of the corncobs are the large balconies that overlook the heart of downtown Chicago. The balcony has traditionally been one of an architect's worst nightmares. It sells real estate, but can be very frustrating to the fluid geometry of design. Goldberg's Marina City allows every single living room and bedroom to have a balcony by using the balcony's shape to inform the building's overall design - pure ingenuity.

Light plays over the corncobs, illuminating
their true beauty (Source: trekearth.com).

Goldberg's design acumen wasn't limited to a one-hit wonder. His progressive work extended to schools and then finally to large-scale projects for hospitals and urban planning. His hospitals offered a new paradigm for how patients and staff interacted within the space, Prentice Hospital being the perfect example. A curvaceous, seven-story concrete tower designed in the early 1970s, the hospital's distinct cloverleaf shape - its four circular wings cantilever out from a central service core - ­was as strange as much as it enhanced the structure's organisational mastery and patient-staff connection. 

Like all artists, Goldberg encountered some contention and criticism over the course of his career - his radical plans were futuristic before the crux of the concept had even been established. But, his progressive approach to design continues to resonate with the varied and multidisciplinary practices of today's architects and designers. And his Marina City remains one of Chicago's most iconic structures for its sheer ingenuity and the revolution it built.

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