Concrete jungle

The first history of Marina City traces its rise and fall.

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Bertrand Goldberg’s buildings are having a bad year. On July 24, heavy rains flooded River City (800 S Wells St), leaving the apartment complex’s residents homeless for weeks. In April, Landmarks Illinois named Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital (333 E Superior St) one of the state’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Places. (Threatened with demolition, the vacant building might provoke a bigger battle with preservationists than Michael Reese Hospital did in 2009.)

Architects Igor Marjanovic and Katerina Rüedi Ray’s new book, Marina City: Bertrand Goldberg’s Urban Vision (Princeton Architectural Press, $35), suggests Goldberg (1913–97) deserves better. Ray, director of Bowling Green State University’s School of Art, used to head UIC’s School of Architecture, where Marjanovic, who teaches at Washington University, earned his master’s degree. In the first history of Marina City (300 N State St), the duo analyze the development’s distinctive form, which came to symbolize Chicago in pop culture long before Wilco put the “corncobs” on the cover of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Though Goldberg studied with Mies van der Rohe at the Bauhaus in Berlin, the Chicago native pursued an alternative modernism that rejected right angles for both structural and aesthetic reasons—a philosophy local Miesians tried to marginalize.

If Marina City were a more conventional book, its authors would portray Goldberg as a lone genius and ignore his buildings’ economic and political context. Ray and Marjanovic give proper credit to Goldberg’s collaborators, however, from developer Charles Swibel and client William McFetridge (head of the Janitors’ Union, Marina City’s primary investor) to Goldberg’s employees, including the female architects tasked, naturally, with interior decorating.

Marjanovic and Ray depict Marina City as a turning point in the histories of architecture, real-estate development and urban planning. While they marvel that its two 65-story towers, when completed in 1964, “were both the tallest residential buildings and the highest reinforced concrete structures in the world,” they don’t neglect the complex’s theater (the House of Blues), 16-story office building (now the Hotel Sax) and the plaza linking these structures.

An in-house grocery store, bank, bowling alley and ice-skating rink (now Smith & Wollensky) reflected a model of 24-hour city living that was revolutionary in the early 1960s. Goldberg’s idea that people might want to live downtown, close to their jobs, and have the amenities that would allow them to do so was so unheard-of, explain Marjanovic and Ray, that local zoning codes forbade it. Goldberg had to convince the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) to recognize singles and married couples without kids as “families” so the project would qualify for a low-cost FHA mortgage. (A fake plan showing Marina City with two reassuringly rectilinear towers helped.)

Such details offer critical insights into Chicago history and American housing policy, and the authors enliven them with Hedrich-Blessing photos and other well-chosen illustrations, drawn largely from the Art Institute of Chicago’s Bertrand Goldberg archive. Unfortunately, as a nuanced work of nonfiction, Marina City is less titillating than, say, Loving Frank. Marjanovic and Ray omit most of their subject’s history after the 1970s, explaining that they’re mainly concerned with Marina City’s “design, construction and early reception.” While they address Marina City’s financial woes and subsequent decline, their slender book ends too soon. A brief fictional account of a resident’s impressions, based on Ray’s experience living there during the late 1990s, makes me wish the authors had included more personal testimonies. Their arguments for Marina City’s significance are so solid, however, that I hope Chicago gets around to granting it landmark status at last.


Smiles fixed, three housewives in a 1966 ComEd ad contemplate the thermostats and appliances in their Marina City apartments. “The modern Marina City kitchens are all-electric, of course,” the ad gushes. “How else could they be really modern?”

Marina City’s technological advancements and unusual design made it an instant icon, according to Igor Marjanovic and Katerina Rüedi Ray’s new book Marina City: Bertrand Goldberg’s Urban Vision (Princeton Architectural Press, $35). Decades before advertisers borrowed the Guggenheim Bilbao’s cachet, companies such as Ford and, oddly, Aeroflot appropriated the “corncobs” to connote modernity and cool.

Ray and Marjanovic describe Marina City’s star turns in Philip Kaufman’s early film Goldstein (1964) and Arthur Penn’s Mickey One (1965). (It also appeared briefly in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Batman Begins, The Break-Up and other films, and in the opening credits of The Bob Newhart Show.) But nothing tops these Marina City cameos:

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
Chicago-based Wilco put a black-and-white photo of the towers on their fourth album (pictured).

The Hunter (1980)
As he’s chased by a bounty hunter (Steve McQueen) in a tow truck, a man speeding through Marina City’s parking structure loses control of his car, which plunges into the Chicago River. “The scene concludes with a worm’s-eye view of the towers and McQueen standing on the ramp’s edge, framed by [sic] curvilinear grid of Marina City’s balconies,” write Marjanovic and Ray. Watch the trailer here.

Allstate commercial (2006)
Ad agency Leo Burnett re-created the Marina City stunt from The Hunter for this car-insurance spot. In their version, the suspect’s chased by an undercover cop, however, and the narrator says, “Now would be a good time to have accident forgiveness” as the car crashes into the river from the 17th floor. Watch the ad here.

Marina City is out now. The Art Institute plans a Goldberg retrospective in fall 2011.

After this story was published, Steven Dahlman wrote in to note that his online history of Marina City has been available since 2007. We meant "history" in the sense of a monograph: It's surprising that no books chronicling Marina City's early years were published before Igor Marjanovic and Katerina Rüedi Ray's scholarly study. But MarinaCityOnline.com, which appeared in ChicaGo in TOC 204, is an invaluable and reliable source of information—including historical information—about the famous corncobs.


After this story was published, Steven Dahlman wrote in to note that his online history of Marina City has been available since 2007. We meant "history" in the sense of a monograph: It's surprising that no books chronicling Marina City's early years were published before Igor Marjanovic and Katerina Rüedi Ray's scholarly study. But MarinaCityOnline.com, which appeared in ChicaGo in TOC 204, is an invaluable and reliable source of information—including historical information—about the famous corncobs.

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