‘City within a city’ turns 50

By HermineBloom

The three-and-a-half acre complex across from Wacker Drive between State and Dearborn streets, or what’s known as Marina City, was conceived by architect Bertrand Goldberg in 1959. He used “city” in its title because, as he saw it, a multi-use complex with residences and stores where people could live, work, shop, work out and dock their boats without leaving the complex was an urban architectural dream—a true symbol of Chicago’s “can-do” attitude. And although much of the managerial cohesiveness Goldberg envisioned isn’t intact 50 years later, his forward-thinking design—including the iconic Marina Towers, which grace album covers and serve as the backdrop for countless films—is still nothing short of revolutionary.

Opening in 1962, Marina City was the first mixed-use complex in the U.S. to include housing. At the time they were built, the towers were the tallest apartment buildings in the world and one of the city’s first all-electric buildings.

On Nov. 22, the Portland Cement Association, which provided technical support for Marina City in the early 1960s, hosted a press conference to celebrate 50 years. Marina City began construction on Nov. 22, 1960. The conference honored the opening of “one of the most complex urban buildings ever built,” Goldberg’s son Geoffrey Goldberg said in a press release.

The complex’s now 50-year-old design and functionality prefigured urban recovery, according to Pulitzer Prize winner Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune.

“It was really an early indication downtown Chicago was not going to go the way of downtown Detroit, for example, or other Midwestern cities where the downtown cities collapsed and were overcome with suburban development,” Kamin said.

During that era, many people were fleeing downtown for suburbia, and jobs in the city were disappearing, not least for the janitors who cleaned the buildings downtown, Kamin explained. In an attempt to counteract the economic shift, the union that represented the janitors helped fund the complex. Marina City cost $36 million to build.

“It symbolizes that original attitude of rolling up our sleeves and saying ‘We can do anything; we can build the biggest apartment building in the world,’” said Steven Dahlman, editor for Marina City Online, a web-only publication devoted to aggregating the history and news of the complex. “Chicago always led the world in architecture, and I think Marina City is a very important symbol of that attitude.”

As for the design’s uniqueness, Goldberg broke from the straitlaced, rectilinear urban designs dominant in the ’60s, Kamin said. He also used concrete as his primary material for the two towers, though steel was commonly used at the time.

“They have a marvelous cylindrical quality to them, and they’ve been compared to corn cobs,” Kamin said, referring to Marina Towers. “Their floor plans also resemble the petals of a flower. They have a central cylindrical core, and they have petal-like balconies that form their perimeter.”

Goldberg found the rectangle stifling. Curves were more naturalistic and organic, and they related more to human beings, Kamin added.

“I mean, after all we’re not blockheads, right?” Kamin said. “We have curves too.”

Sitting right on the Chicago River, Marina City is a piece of sculpture, and there’s no better place to view an architectural sculpture top-to-bottom than next to a body of water, Kamin said, because there’s nothing to impede the view.

“[Goldberg] really anticipated many of the more free-form naturalistic architecture of today like Frank Gehry, who was revolting against the sterility of the box,” Kamin said.

Dahlman, who began MarinaCityOnline.com in 2005, owns a studio in the west Marina Tower and rents a one-bedroom apartment in the east tower.

After photographing the structure many times, Dahlman said his fascination with Marina City grew and he was unable to find a news site or publication devoted to the subject. A professional photographer, former news reporter and writer,

Dahlman plans to publish Marina City’s biography as a book after he organizes the historical information he’s uncovered.

Though Dahlman admits there are probably nicer places to live in the city, he said people who live in the residential buildings recognize they are living in a slice of Chicago history.

Tim Wittman, an architectural historian, historic preservationist and adjunct art and design faculty member at Columbia, worked for the city landmarks commission for 13 years. He teaches a course called Architecture in Chicago Now, in which he takes his students on walking architecture tours every week.

Wittman interviewed Goldberg for a proposed but never initiated landmark designation in 1995. The other buildings, with the exception of the two towers, were financially threatened at that time when the bank that owned them went bankrupt, and many of the tenants started to move out as a result, he said. But a new owner opened the House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn St., in place of the vacant theater, and the Hotel Sax, 333 N. Dearborn St., replaced the office building, which eliminated the urgency.

“The project to designate Marina City was dropped in favor of other more pressing issues,” Wittman said. “It’s not that it’s unworthy of being a landmark, but it’s really hard to designate something that new.”

Wittman agrees the design and functionality of the buildings were groundbreaking because Goldberg seemed to anticipate modern themes in architecture. Specifically, Goldberg designed a green air conditioning system before they called it green, he said.

“The air conditioning system has no condensers and no chemistry,” Wittman said. “They take advantage of the location of the building being next to the river, and they siphon water out of the river, filter and pump it through pipes and radiators, and they blow air through the radiators.”

Marina City’s air conditioning system requires little to no maintenance, a minimal amount of electricity and doesn’t create pollution, according to Wittman.

“Goldberg was about four or five decades ahead of everyone else thinking about green design,” Wittman said.

As for the “city within a city” idea, Goldberg originally proposed, multi-use complexes for maximum efficiency were an entirely new concept during that era, Wittman said. And by the second half of the 20th century, people were starting to segregate the landscape by use, he said. For example, a shopping district exists in one area, and a residential district in another area.

“Goldberg’s idea was to put it all on one site, and that’s exactly what people are designing now,” Wittman said. “Creating a multi-use facility is the biggest idea in the past 10 years. Well, no it’s not. Goldberg did it in 1960.”

However, the cohesiveness Goldberg intended did not last 50 years.

“The sad thing for Goldberg was he always imagined the thing would be one entity that would be coordinated—there would be a management company that would be looking over the whole building,” he said.

But when the original financer went bankrupt, the building ended up in the hands of a Texas bank during the savings and loans crisis of 1988–1991, Wittman explained. The buildings were sold in pieces. So now Marina City has hundreds of owners, especially after turning the apartment buildings into condos.

“Goldberg’s vision was a much more cooperative [one],” Wittman said. “One management company would make the decisions, and that part of it has not worked. From an architecture and design standpoint, the building has largely been a success. But from a financial management standpoint, some parts have worked much better than others.”