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Bertrand Goldberg (1913-1997)

"Architecture is the public art that shows people what they've been thinking."

Bertrand Goldberg, Architect of Chicago's Marina Towers
Photographer: Torkel Korling
Goldberg with "Unishelter"


After Bertrand Goldberg left his native Chicago in 1932 to study architecture at the Bauhaus, his every inclination was to design within the language of Mies van der Rohe. Within the theory of Mies, he sought to achieve a democracy of architectural forms which could solve the problems of the greatest number of people and their widest possible needs.

At the same time, Goldberg considered it a mistake for New York's new Museum of Modern Art to anoint Bauhaus design concepts as the "International Style." By seeing modernism as interpreted by the European minimalists only as a "style," was to miss their point entirely. The Bauhaus wedded architecture to industrialization in order to solve the social problems of modern man as a Utopian solution.

Bertrand Goldberg, Architect of Chicago's Marina Towers
Plywood chair
Prototype for San Francisco Fair


Soon after his return in 1934, he graduated from Chicago's Armour Institute, the forerunner if IIT. Chicago during that time of its world's fair was boiling with many competing design languages, one of which was the conceptualism of Buckminster Fuller, the reigning deity of industrial aesthetics. After working with Leland Atwood in the office of George Fred Keck, Goldberg started his own practice in 1937. In 1938, he designed transportable, factory produced housing and commercial structures that could be assembled in a short time with easily fabricated components.


Two projects in that year illuminate his approach to industrialized architecture. The Clark/Maple service station in Chicago used two centralized masts holding cable supported walls and roof that had been manufactured off site. Unstable soil conditions allowed for only the masts to have footings and foundations. The North Pole Ice Cream store was designed to have a single mast from which were hung the window walls and roof. The seasonal market conditions dictated that the stores could be erected in the summer in Northern climates and in the winter in Southern ones. Though only one North Pole store was constructed in River Forest that summer, the philosophy of prefabrication influenced Goldberg for the rest of his life.

The first houses he designed were further experiments in prefabrication utilizing stressed plywood for thinner interior and exterior walls. In his designs for furniture, he also shaped plywood into body contoured surfaces for a settee and chair he exhibited at the 1937 San Francisco Exposition. A 1939 house he built combined a residence and physician's office built entirely with the Chicago common brick used in connective party walls of thousands of row houses. Finding modernist beauty in the ubiquitous brown brick, Goldberg proved his kinship with the Chicago School of Architecture.

Bertrand Goldberg, Architect of Chicago's Marina Towers
Hedrich Blessing photograph
North Pole Ice Cream Store
Exhibition gelatin silver print, 1999


The war years found him looking for design solutions in partnership with the US government. Because of his familiarity with prefabricated plywood forms, the wartime restrictions on the use of metal made him the ideal candidate to design mobile labs for penicillin production, desert fumigation units and quickly assembled housing modules. Those same talents, after the war, saw him transform the technologies into refrigerated railroad cars and the "Unishelter," a factory built modular housing system that could be packed as a shipping container before its shipment to Alaska.

Bertrand Goldberg, Architect of Chicago's Marina Towers
Mobile Fumigation Unit
Original design, 1942
Pen and ink on draftsman's velum, 1985
10 x 8 inches


Though he shared with other modernists a Utopian streak, envisioning ideal solutions for "the people," he could never quite forget that he was, at heart, a humanist, more concerned with "a person." By 1955, he was becoming disillusioned with what he felt were the deficiencies of Miesian modernism. By then accepted as symbolic of corporate power and wealth, the clean, internationalized forms were becoming artistic end results in themselves and not flexible enough to respond to an individual's needs.

"In 1955, I received this terrible shock when I realized that Mies was not a man of his time. That what we called modern architecture was an architecture that could be repeated for miles without beginning or end."

Society had changed after the turn of the 20th Century. Science, economics, technology and even psychology had evolved with the growing scale of western civilization. "By the end of World War I,..." Goldberg wrote in his cynical 1982 essay "Rich is right""...the box was recognized as the perfect shape to package a right-angled society. The design of the perfect box kept pace with the mechanization of all types of production: with factory made clothes, with steel rolling mills, with automobiles, radios and packaged foods.

"The individual disappeared, becoming part of masses measured and counted. Governments and corporations lost their individuality as they were taken over by managers who replaced an elite group of aristocrats; these new forms of business and nations depended upon mass electorates, mass markets and mass labor forces."

Goldberg felt that the purpose of a city was for interpersonal interaction. "People need to communicate personally with each other. This is a primitive instinct which architecture must understand...for communication makes community." Economy became the other driving force in his approach to architecture. He had long felt that the 19th Century reinforced concrete works of Auguste Perret and even the fanciful iron creations of Hector Guimard utilized industrial elements to express feeling in architecture which had been lost with the acceptance of the International style. The economical superiority of concrete over steel, its universal availability and the multiplication of its forms into any modular arrangement gave the material an advantage for every project. In the mid-1950s, he began to experiment with concrete shell structures as a sculptural solution to that need for the biomorphic in our cities. He came closest to explaining this change in his "Rich is Right" essay for Inland Architect: "Both in the use of space and in the form of space I discovered that behavior can be influenced by the shape of space."

Bertrand Goldberg, Architect of Chicago's Marina Towers
Nesting Tables for Helstein House, Chicago

Marina City

In 1959, Goldberg partnered with the Building Service Employees International Union (BSEIU), the Plumbers' Union, to develop a downtown mixed use residential project on the north bank of the Chicago River. Because that side of the river was socially disconnected from the pedestrian activity in the Loop, Marina City was designed to integrate shopping and entertainment, offices, parking and residences into a one square block area. Residents and other users would sail into the marina or drive into the base plaza, their cars parked in a twenty story spiral stack, and walk to their office or take an elevator to their apartments high above the complex.

Bertrand Goldberg, Architect of Chicago's Marina Towers
Marina City Model
circa 1960

Bertrand Goldberg, Architect of Chicago's Marina Towers
Marina City under construction
circa 1961
Real estate economics dictated that there were to be 900 units over the parking portion. Because one structure with so many units would have been far too dense for livability, two 60 story towers were built on the land. Goldberg at first thought that steel shells would be appropriate for such a tall structure but the cost proved far higher than concrete. So Marina City became the tallest reinforced concrete structures built to that time.
Bertrand Goldberg, Architect of Chicago's Marina Towers
Hedrich Blessing photo
Marina City
circa 1964

Architecturally, Goldberg achieved a more graceful and organic look to the towers with his circular plan. Their sculpted, petal shaped cells each had a large, semicircular balcony that cantilevered from arched supports. The overall effect was that of a pair of gigantic reeded columns at the waterside, with boat, bridge, street and pedestrian traffic animating the entire complex.

At its completion in 1964, Marina City became an immediate worldwide sensation and an icon of Chicago. Just a few short years before, Goldberg was still trying to be a good Miesian. Now that he had turned his back on his former Bauhaus mentor, he achieved with one project a near legendary status that marked him as one of the world's great expressionistic architects.

Bertrand Goldberg, Architect of Chicago's Marina Towers
Plan of apartments
Marina City


At the same time he was building Marina City, Goldberg was designing Astor Tower Hotel, a corporate residential building at the center of Chicago's historic Gold Coast neighborhood. He ignored contextualism for this deluxe real estate venture, raising the tower atop tall, perimeter columns and setting it back from the line of the existing masonry mansions. Although it was also built with a tall, central core, it utilized a right-angle plan for its one bedroom suites. He followed that high-end, Astor Street tower with a Chicago public housing project, "Raymond Hilliard Center" in 1966 on the city's south side.

Vaguely similar in profile to a Marina City without balconies, Hilliard's two 16 floor towers for elderly residents consist of petal like cells of slip-form concrete that entirely support the structure. The two crescent plan towers for families also use the same self supporting cell technique.

Bertrand Goldberg, Architect of Chicago's Marina Towers
Site plan of San Diego Theater

New York's American Broadcasting Corporation contracted Goldberg to design a 60 story headquarters tower which he envisioned as a corrugated, concrete tube mated to a gigantic transmission antenna. ABC instead chose to build a conventional box-like skyscraper.

The worldwide acclaim for Chicago's Marina City prompted developers all over the country to attempt a "Goldberg variation" in their own inner cities. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he was approached to design many mixed use tower projects in Phoenix, Detroit, Kansas City and Boston, and commercial and entertainment resorts in Florida and the Gulf Coast. For reasons of money, politics and simple lack of nerve, most of the clients failed to build the projects.

Certainly the most wildly expressionistic of his unbuilt projects was his design for the San Diego Theater, a 1969 community theater to be built in La Jolla, California. The three stage complex, along with its classrooms and set construction areas was to occupy a vast serpent-like structure of concrete sprayed steel bones, its biomorphic profile undulating over the hills.

Bertrand Goldberg, Architect of Chicago's Marina Towers
Hedrich Blessing photo
Prentice Women's Pavilion
Northwestern Hospital


Goldberg Associates surprisingly found health care clients to be the most adventurous, and they successfully completed hospital projects in Milwaukee, Tacoma, Boston and Phoenix. His theories of "community driven" planning utilizing a central core for shared services branching into subsidiary pods for individual residences worked perfectly for hospitals. The nursing and administrative services occupied the cores and patients were housed in surrounding pods. Alternatively, this "cluster" technique, the nonstructural counterpart to that core with pods system, was used most successfully in his megastructure for the Health Sciences Center in Stony Brook, New York.

It was in his design for Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood that he stretched the capabilities of concrete to its upper limits. Since the late 1950s, Goldberg had cantilevered pods from a concrete core but his design for the Prentice Women's Pavilion let him exploit the material for his most daring form yet. Each of the four lobes of this seven level tower would spring over 50 feet from the elevator core. The graceful concrete cloverleaf hovered over a five story Miesian base structure that housed a clinic whose floor space was freed from intruding support columns.

Bertrand Goldberg, Architect of Chicago's Marina Towers
River City 1
Presentation rendering
Marker on lineprint, 1984
24 x 36 inches

River City

In the mid-seventies, Chicago approved the zoning for a vast complex of linked towers as part of a huge marina along the branch of the river just south of the Loop. "River City" was envisioned as the culmination of Goldberg's earlier success with concrete core structures and cantilevered balconies. Half a mile long and housing three times the number of people as Marina City, the project was to have six clusters of "Triad" towers of 72 floors, linked every eighteen floors with connecting levels suspended between, and bracing, the three buildings.

Eventually, the proposal eliminated all of the towers and consisted of a long, undulating plan of two megastructures separated by "River Road," a glass roofed street that was to act as a marketplace. By 1985, only one short portion of the snakelike buildings and marina was built.

Bertrand Goldberg, Architect of Chicago's Marina Towers
Goldberg with River City Triad Model
circa 1980

Goldberg's legacy

New York's Museum of Modern Art included Goldberg's work in a 1968 exhibition. Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art and Art Institute followed suit through the 1970s. However, France has probably been the most open to his artistic vision, with museums and cultural centers frequently exhibiting his work through the 70s and 80s. After presenting "150 Years of Chicago Architecture" in 1984, the Paris Art Center installed a more focussed exhibition of Goldberg's career the following year. "Bertrand Goldberg: Dans la Ville" comprised models, renderings and large photo murals of highlights of his best buildings. The exhibition produced a French and English coffee table book that is, to this day, the only major book on the work of Goldberg.

Because most architects will never build a skyscraper, the few who do lean toward safe acceptance. Clients for such projects risk losing millions over an idea that doesn't sell, or square footage that won't lease. The fact that Goldberg could still remain a daring artist while being a practical engineer for such high risk structures, tells us volumes about his salesmanship, and the foresight of his clients. Few architects have demonstrated such individualism in the face of corporate conformity.

In spite of his Bauhaus training at the high holy place of architectural modernism, Bertrand Goldberg couldn't have become any other kind of artist than the sculptor and humanist that he always was. He greatly influenced the "futurologists," the 1960s offshoot of the traditional Utopians in the architectural community. Several years after his death in 1997, his family presented his archive of drawings and files to the Department of Architecture of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Chicago School of Architecture was a breakthrough because it stripped the superfluous from commercial building and expressed the beauty inherent in structure alone. Goldberg found that the form of a building provided its reason for being; that its very shape could supply the solutions to the needs of its program. His visionary designs are now seen as a major progression in the timeline of The Chicago School. Bertrand Goldberg didn't believe that "form follows function," but that form "allowed" function.

From his 1982 essay: "The art of architecture is in change. Architecture needs a face that can be recognized as committed to that change; a face to show that architecture is a social art in an industrial age, above all concerned with the individual. Architecture is not frozen music, as Goethe suggested, it is the body of humanism. Let us protect it."

Link to Bertrand Goldberg: The Shape of Space - 2005 exhibition at ArchiTech Gallery
Link to our Marina City Page, containing Bertrand Goldberg's speech about Marina City presented at the seminar on "Architectural Aspects of Edmonton Civic Centre Plan," Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. September 27, 1959.

David Jameson
ArchiTech Gallery
730 North Franklin suite 200
Chicago, IL 60654

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