Marina City was conceived in 1959 by Bertrand Goldberg as a “city within a city”; an impetus to ease the exodus of Chicago’s urban middle class to the suburbs. Occupying an entire central city block adjacent to the Chicago River, the mixed-use programme at Marina City efficiently grouped commerce, recreation and education at the lower levels of the city and placed housing above. “Living above the store”, as Goldberg called it, exploited the use of the land in the most efficient way.
With financing secured by the Building Service Employees International Union, a novel partnership, ground was broken at Marina City on November 22, 1960. Completed in 1967, the complex contained five distinct concrete buildings. A two-story platform straddled defunct railroad tracks and engaged the river with a 700-boat marina at its lower level. On the surface, a riverside skating rink statically interacted with the river below. The platform served as a base for the remaining four buildings which included a 1700-seat theater resting on a 750-seat auditorium, a sixteen-story commercial building with 100,000 square feet housing offices, stores and recreational facilities, and two cylindrical sixty-foot towers rising 588 feet. The first nineteen-floors of the towers were reserved for parking and accommodated a total of 900 cars. The upper forty floors of the towers contained a combined total of 896 apartments with 210-degree views of the river and city.
The buildings were constructed with concrete cast in-situ, a marked departure from the Miesian steel and glass rectilinear boxes populating Chicago. At the time of construction, the towers were the world’s tallest buildings built of reinforced concrete. The apartments were also the first to be heated and cooled electrically, and outfitted with electrical appliances.
Engaging the northern bank of the Chicago River, Marina City straddles defunct railroad tracks on Block One of the original town of Chicago. The mixed-use complex is anchored by a rectilinear two-story base. From that foundation auxiliary building are anchored: two-cylindrical towers, a theater and a 16-story commercial building. Marina City, in design, manifested Bertrand Goldberg’s urban philosophy. Believing that “cities are vital”, he sought to revitalize the central Chicago and give middle-class urban dwellers a reason not to flee to the suburbs. The complex was designed as a city within a city, where night-time use of buildings would be stacked upon the daytime use of the complex, thus achieving maximum efficiency in land use. Goldberg exploited Marina City’s proximity to the river, engaging the water, most notably, with a 700-boat marina. Marina City, as described in a 1978 Bertrand Goldberg Associates Folio, was the “first in the modern world to combine office, living, health, theatre, recreation, and support services for a new center city environment.”
Goldberg intended for the commercial building to “control public life on the plaza”. The office building serves as a buffer to what lays beyond, which was undeveloped at the time of construction. The office structure presided over a one-acre open play deck for office workers, which in turn sat above a bowling alley and auditorium. The office building contained service space for a bank; a restaurant, coffee shop and commissary provided a variety of foods at a wide variety of prices, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Also on the plaza level was an ice skating rink that was utilized six months out of the year. Residing adjacent to the river, it allowed for unimpeded views of the water from the plaza area.
Completed last, the theater building was designed for various performances. Its concave roof is sculptural and alludes to the river. Smaller in scale than any of the other structures and at an angle, the theater acts as the North Star, simultaneously orienting and grounding. A television studio occupied the upper portion and became a focal point for the complex.
The most iconic feature of Marina City are the two sixty-story towers with forms, according to Goldberg, “suggesting the upward grace of growing branches and the airy open form of a sunflower petal”. Constructed by reinforced concrete cast in-situ, the towers have a supportive steel core reserved for service functions and a ring of sixteen columns at the periphery. The upper forty floors of the towers are reserved for residential apartments and number 896. The floors are divided into sixteen segments and have semi-circular balconies that cantilever past the faceted glazed façade, their undulating form mimicking the river below. Efficiency apartments occupy one segment, or “petal” of the floor, and have one balcony. The living space of one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments occupy one petal and one balcony, and are augmented by either a half or whole petal, respectively. The narrowest portion of the apartment is reserved for the entry, bathroom and kitchen, while the living rooms and bedrooms are placed along the outer ring. The entrance experience is heightened by the subtle splaying of the walls that enlarge and culminate in grand wall of glass framing views of Chicago and the river. The New York Times assured its readers that the gradually angled walls were not an impediment to decoration after visiting the model apartments outfitted by Chicago stores in January of 1962.
Recognizing the importance of the automobile, Goldberg integrated them into the base of his towers rather than relinquishing horizontal ground level space. The garage floors are accessed by a corkscrew ramp wound around the service core. Cars park radially around the perimeter of the tower and are afforded the same view as the apartments above. The cars become a secondary and changing fabric visible from the street level. Visually, the bottom portions of the towers become a base and sculptural unifier.
Original Physical Context
Marina City covers Block One of the original town of Chicago, a site owned by the Chicago and North Western Railway for a hundred years. The southern portion of the site fronts the Chicago River for 300 feet, and is bounded by North State Street to the east and North Dearborn Street to the west. The site was one of the largest available plottages of land with river frontage in the city’s central area at the time of conception. The site was restricted by a small area of air rights over railroad tracks running on the north side of the Chicago River. Bertrand Goldberg seized the opportunity to engage the waterfront. On the lowest level, his daytime layer, Goldberg exploited the relationship with the insertion of a 700-boat marina. On the upper layer, or the night-time zone, Goldberg designed generous ten foot deep balconies with curvilinear forms alluding to the flow of the river. The residential units in the towers did not begin until the twentieth floor, which allowed for 210-degree views from the apartments. Goldberg also positioned the sixteen-story office building so that its form would shield the users of Marina City from the unsightly stretches north of the site that had yet to be developed.
The site and its limited air rights, as well as the restrictions imposed by the Federal Housing Authority as insurers of the Marina City’s union financing, necessitated efficiency. Bertrand Goldberg rose to the challenge by choosing circular forms for his towers, a radical departure from previous building techniques. As a concept, the cylindrical tower offers the least enclosure for the greatest floor area. Goldberg argued that the cylinder is structurally the most efficient form because it concentrates material where it works most effectively and because it can resist bending equally well in any direction.
Further deviating from conventional building techniques, Bertrand Goldberg selected concrete as a material for his forms. Goldberg claimed that if Marina City had been constructed with structural steel, 10 to15 percent would have been added to its $17 million cost. The tonnage of steel in Marina City is about 70 percent less than in a building of similar height constructed with structural steel. It does, however, use about 10 times as much concrete.
Unlike the post and beam steel-frame technology refined by Mies van der Rohe and his Chicago School disciples, the Marina City towers were supported by a central steel core – thirty-two feet in diameter – versus being supported at the periphery. The great size of the towers required that some part of the floor loads be supported by radial girders which transmit the loads to the circumferential rings of columns. (Condit: “The New Architecture of Chicago”: 116) Marina City used lightweight fiberglass forms to cast the concrete, an innovation that reduced construction time considerably by creating a final finish with sharp corners. Marble chips were shot onto the plastic concrete to create further interest.
The use of Danish Linden cranes during construction of the towers was also innovative. The cranes rose with the tower and provided power for hoisting plastic forms, reinforcing steel, and concrete. Cranes operating from the ground were limited to use in buildings of fourteen stories or less.
The Marina City complex was an opportunity for Bertrand Goldberg to explore many of his philosophical ideals. He had observed that in developing downtown city areas, huge office buildings, limited in use generally to 40 hours weekly, were expensive to operate and required elevated rents. Housing built in downtown locations were necessarily luxury units with equally expensive rents. To alleviate this, Bertrand Goldberg designed Marina City in layers. The lower portions of the buildings were intended for daytime use, while the upper portions were reserved for night-time use. This consideration represented efficient land utilization.
Bertrand Goldberg viewed Marina City as a “giant step toward the rebirth of the idea that a city is a good place to live” (Dorothea Brooks, p 4). Goldberg designed the complex to make “living above the store,” as he called it, fashionable. The complex created a vertically integrated building that could compete with the amenities of suburban residences, while allowing residents to remain within the center of Chicago and enjoy the resources of the river. According to Goldberg’s son, Geoffrey, also an architect, Marina City became an occasion where his father was “no longer just the individual architect, a notion that he was suspicious about all his career. He began working as a city planner, an investor, and an intellectual” (Dwell: 100)
The design for Marina City confronted the site constraints and financial restrictions for development, emerging highly efficient. The extreme rationality in choosing the cylindrical form for the towers prevents the design from being faddish. The complex exemplifies an astute and interdependent relationship between architecture and engineering. Engineering was exploited to create a new form for high-rise building, one that contrasts sharply with Chicago’s city fabric. The application of concrete illustrated how the material could be used to stunning effect. The curved cantilevers and balcony voids feminize and soften the concrete; the forms do not appear monolithic and rough.
Early praise was bestowed on Marina City not necessarily for its architecture, but for its purpose. The project was the largest private undertaking launched after Mayor Daley announced his $1,500,000,000 plan for redevelopment of Chicago’s central area in 1958. The Building Service Employees International Union viewed their investment in Marina City as a way to ensure the future of the downtown, an area linked to the livelihood of their members. The union’s involvement drew the spotlight onto the project before ground was even broken. The Christian Science Monitor praised Marina City in 1962 not only for its important advance in architecture and concrete engineering, but also for its new concept in urban living.
While favorable architectural press was limited to single adjectives like “sensational”, the engineering feat of Marina City received many accolades. Pier Luigi Nervi described it as a staggering display of “structural virtuosity bravissimo”. Carl W. Condit also praised Marina City for its boldness, writing that the reinforced concrete towers “went higher than ever thought possible.” It also was awarded the “Total Electric Gold Medallion Award of Excellence” by the electrical industry for its novel use of electric heat and air conditioning, all electric appliances, Light-for-Living, and full house-power to take care of present and future needs.
Marina City also captured the imagination of the mass-market and its fame grew through the proliferation of travel posters and other advertisements. Amateur architectural critics coined names for the towers like paper towel tubes, silos and salt and pepper shakers. The most pervasive nickname, the “Corn Cob Buildings”, is possibly more widely known than its official name of Marina City.
Time has heightened the appreciation of Marina City. Myron Goldsmith, in a letter to the city of Chicago in the 1990s, wrote that Marina City is “one of the most important groups of buildings built in Chicago during the 30 years following World War II… Professional and laypersons come from all over the world to see it and study it. It is today, a symbol of Chicago” (Davis: 38).
Marina City, built in the early 1960s, stands out as being decidedly anti-Miesian. In sharp contrast to the rectilinear buildings that populate the city of Chicago, the Marina City towers are cylindrical with striking interplays of void and solids, and shadow and light. In designing Marina City, Bertrand Goldberg illustrated how design choices should be made in consideration of the programme, versus adapting a programme to a form. Marina City served as the inspiration for the 1972 Dorint Hotel Tower in Augsburg, Germany.
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Depicted item: "This is Marina City", 1965, source: "This is Marina City," a documentary produced in 1965 by the Portland Cement Association of Skokie, Illinois, detailing the planning, construction and utilization of Marina City.