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Wednesday30 July 2014

Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention

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Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention

By Zoe Ryan, Alison Fisher, Elizabeth Smith, Sarah Whiting
Yale University Press, 192pp, £40

A new book shows how Bertrand Goldberg brought Bauhaus sensibilities to his work in Chicago

The 179m-tall undulating towers of Marina City, Bertrand Goldberg’s “city within a city” constructed between 1958 and 1963, are an iconic feature on the Chicago skyline. They have a glamorous quality of Jetsons-era futurist kitsch, which have led them to be viewed with affection. Beyond this iconicity, the complex retains an interest as an urban vision — it is a pioneering example of an attempt at countering suburban development with a reinvestment in the inner city as a place in which to live, work and play.

In the way that Marina City combines high-density living in towers with an array of cultural amenities on a podium deck, it is a Chicagoan cousin to London’s Barbican; albeit with a very American flavour, with amusements for residents including a marina, bowling alley, ice rink and a saddle-shaped theatre reminiscent of Eero Saarinen’s Yale ice rink.

This attractive monograph sets out to contextualise the complex within the less well-known oeuvre of its architect, Bertrand Goldberg (1913-1997). The authors hope that, seen in its entirety, Goldberg’s reputation will be elevated to the first rank among his generation. On the evidence of this book though it would be hard to argue that, aside from Marina City, Goldberg was as compelling an architect as peers such as Gordon Bunschaft, IM Pei or Paul Rudolph.

It is useful as a catalogue of Goldberg’s work but there are some frustrations, such as repetition of facts and that, due to its attempt at completeness, some significant projects are difficult to get a proper sense of. For those curious about the architect, a better starting place is the excellent 2010 monograph Marina City: Bertrand Goldberg’s Urban Vision, by Igor Marjanovic and Katerina Rüedi Ray.

Many contemporary commentators saw the sinuous concrete curves of Goldberg’s buildings as a radical challenge to the Miesian post-and-lintel geometries of glass and steel, then the dominant forms of post-war Chicago. It becomes clear from the text that these curves are not evidence of a Wrightian organic architecture, nor indeed of a geometric monumentality in the mould of Louis Kahn, but rather that Goldberg remained deeply indebted to his Bauhaus training.

Although he was born in Chicago, he attended the Bauhaus from 1932-3, followed by a stint in Mies’s Berlin office. Perhaps most significantly, Josef Albers’ courses in how to create three-dimensional objects out of abstract, pure geometries remained fundamental to his design approach.
The importance of the Bauhaus is most apparent in Goldberg’s furniture. The single-family houses also often show the architect working within his Miesian heritage. His Aaron Heimbach House of 1944 is recognisably based on Mies’s unbuilt Brick Country House of 1923-4.

After Marina City, the globular plan became something of a signature. It was used for the Raymond Hilliard public housing, as well as a number of hospitals.

These buildings have a certain sci-fi magnificence, especially photographed in black and white from a low angle, giving the impression of space rockets preparing for lift-off. However, I was left with the impression that these spherical forms became as reductive an idiom as the Miesian grid.

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