Background

Bertrand Goldberg was a Chicago architect. Born here in 1913, he studied at Harvard College; in 1931, he went to the Bauhaus in Germany. Goldberg apprenticed briefly in Mies’ office in Berlin, and upon returning to Chicago, worked in the offices of the Keck brothers, Paul Schweicker, and others. In 1937, the young architect opened his own office. He practiced in Chicago until his decease in 1997.

The Work: Early Period

Goldberg’s early work can be understood in light of his Chicago origins and in his training at the Bauhaus. He believed in a progressive agenda with a strongly American and in some sense, Chicagoan, approach of pragmatism. His work reflects an individualistic combination of this pragmatism with the social and formal ideas of the Bauhaus.

Houses

Goldberg’s early work (from 1937 through the mid 1950’s) included many residential projects. They can be considered as part of a larger body of intriguing early modernist residential work built around the time of World War II. These residences were modest in size and were formally impetuous in their interiors. In each, moments of architectural intensity were developed within otherwise calm and tranquil layouts.

Goldberg detailed and furnished these early houses with a particular sensibility. For example, one kitchen was fitted with sprinklers to wash down stainless countertops; another house had limestone slabs, some 20’ long, for entry walls; dressing mirrors were hinged to provide hidden jewelry storage behind. For many, custom furniture was also designed.

Prefabrication

Another body of Goldberg’s early work focused on industrial design and manufacturing processes. Here, the interest was in problems of constructability and sequencing. In 1938, Goldberg designed a movable Ice Cream Store to fit in the back of a truck, so that it could be driven to Florida in the winter and return to Chicago in the summer. The building was erected and suspended from a single (collapsible) mast.

The same year, he also designed a gas station, suspended from two columns to minimize foundation work. During World War II, Goldberg designed a mobile delousing unit and a prefabricated mobile penicillin lab; postwar work included a prefabricated pressed steel bathroom unit and a stressed-skin plywood boxcar.

The Work: Middle Period

After a brief partnership with Lee Atwood (who had worked with Buckminster Fuller on the Dymaxion Car and whose father had been associated with Burnham years before), Goldberg started his own firm, Bertrand Goldberg Associates, in the early 1950’s. Throughout that decade, the firm’s work included office buildings, union halls, art centers, and some residential development. Goldberg found modest success: he was published, and he won a PA award in 1957 for Drexel Gardens, an affordable housing complex in Chicago.

Marina City

In 1959, Goldberg started work on Marina City. The project, completed in 1967, was the defining work of his career. He was involved in all areas of the project, including financing and development, architecture, engineering, and construction management.

Marina City was one project with many buildings: it included two 60 story residential towers, a 16 story office building with a recreational building for bowling below, and a free-standing theater. These buildings were all set atop a three story base building that incorporated an ice-skating rink and a marina off the river.

Marina City was launched as a result of an interesting collaboration. A Chicago politician and labor leader named Bill McFetridge, head of a janitor’s union (International Union of Building Maintenance Employees), asked Goldberg to find a site for a new union headquarters. Goldberg found an attractive site on the river in downtown Chicago, but the site was too expensive. Goldberg himself proposed other development to make the project viable and convinced the Union leadership that their long-term needs would be served best by developing work and housing for their members in downtown Chicago. He proposed an entire complex as a “city within a city,” a place where different functions reinforced each other. The whole was to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Construction started in 1960, and the popularity of Marina City was extraordinary. Marina City was a project choc-full of innovation, described by Carl Condit as a “staggering display of structural virtuosity.” 1 Chicagoans delighted in watching the towers grow beside the river; the exuberant new shapes captured something of Chicago’s brash spirit. Even today, they maintain a lasting hold on the popular imagination.

The Work: Late Period

Marina City emerged as the culmination of Goldberg’s earlier interests in people and their use of space. The project also embodied his interests in innovative use of systems building technologies and in the detailing that made those solutions workable. Developed outside of the mainstream, Marina City launched Goldberg’s career; with its success, he was able to speak convincingly and obtain larger and more complex commissions. From the late 1950’s, the office of Bertrand Goldberg Associates (BGA) grew from a modest size of 10 people up to its maximum size, in the 1970’s, of over 100 people.

At its height, BGA had offices in Boston and Palo Alto and undertook major building and planning commissions on a national scale. Goldberg led the office, but it was run by a core group of dedicated staff that stayed with him from the early 1960’s through the early 1990’s.

Institutional Projects

BGA received many commissions for educational and health care facilities. Over 12 major new hospitals were designed by BGA, and at both Health Sciences Center (Stony Brook, New York, 1967-1974) and Wright College (Chicago, 1985-1992), BGA designed and planned entire educational campuses. Typically BGA was responsible for the programming, planning, architecture and engineering. This integration permitted BGA to develop and execute its alternative solutions effectively; for example, the unique structural solutions of the office were informed by the close connections between design, engineering, and construction.

In the mid-1960′s, the firm completed its first health-care project, a hospital for the town of Elgin, IL. Clad in metal, this hospital was the firm’s first round institutional structure. The firm’s first major medical project was the Affiliated Hospital Center (Boston, 1970 – 1984), a visionary effort to combine several Harvard Hospitals into one entity. Initiated under a comprehensive master plan in the 1960′s, the project became a series of individual buildings (Dana Cancer Center, 1974; Brigham Hospital, 1980; and others).

The firm designed other large hospitals in Chicago, Boston, Tacoma (Washington), Phoenix (Arizona), Milwaukee (Wisconsin), and Mobile (Alabama).

In all of these projects, BGA focused on the patient’s environment by improving the patient-nurse relationship. Typically, hospitals had been designed for maximum space utility, with patient rooms laid out along long corridors. BGA developed radial solutions that provided direct visual connection from the patient to the nurse, creating clusters of patients around a central nurse’s station. This concept challenged the basic organization of the hospital; consequently, the firm undertook studies of material handling, administrative organization, and a general reshuffling of priorities, so that innovative spatial and organizational arrangements could be realized.

Each of the hospital designs was similar in concept, but incorporated modest changes to the concrete form and structure. Each utilized concrete shell technology, providing both structure and form. The inherent economy of this approach was only achievable by the integration of unique notions of space and form with an appropriate construction methodology.

Urban Buildings

Goldberg’s burgeoning interest in social issues led to other projects, typically urban, addressing housing or other social concerns. This interest had roots in the early BGA public housing project for Drexel Home and Gardens (Chicago, 1957), as well as the public housing complex of Raymond Hilliard Homes (Chicago, 1966). After Marina City and Hilliard, BGA developed a number of urban proposals. Most were not built.

Goldberg dreamed of building a tower using only a supporting core, without perimeter columns. First proposed for Denver, this concept was again proposed in New York as a corporate headquarters for ABC.

Never built, this tower was also key for a large-scale development Goldberg proposed as River City in Chicago, a vast grouping of towers to be built along the river (River City I, 1974 – 1980). After years of effort, he redesigned the project in the 1980′s as a medium-rise housing development of two snake-like forms. The result is one of Goldberg’s last radical building forms: the exterior shapes are of two cast concrete serpentine shapes, and the resultant interior atrium is both tall and narrow and of an austere quality. This space is probably the most dramatic interior he ever designed.

Sculptural Structures

Goldberg’s structural and material inventiveness can also be seen in a series of smaller, unique projects undertaken by the office. These projects served as both research and inspiration for the more regular work of the office. They included:

the Menninger Clinic (1965, unbuilt), a combination research and patient care facility.
the Brenneman School (Chicago, 1963), a public school with flaring sprayed concrete roofs over each classroom.
the West Palm Beach Auditorium (West Palm Beach, Florida, 1967), a large dome-like building with precast concrete roofing rafters.
the San Diego Theater (1968, unbuilt), proposed with sprayed concrete shells.
Night World (1979, unbuilt) a proposed 24 hour recreation center to be developed near Disneyworld in Florida, with a series of tent structures sited on a new lake.

Vision

Cities and Social Progress

Goldberg believed in cities as special places. He saw in them a synthesis of physical form, political activity, and intellectual creativity. Goldberg also saw great potential in the ability of power to consolidate itself in cities, and for progressive ideals to take hold. These ideals were evident in the many master plans BGA produced during the 1960′s and 1970s. Goldberg advocated comprehensive planning at a vast scale, and attempted to plan for community formation, educational programming, recreation, and transportation systems. He engaged numerous community leaders and specialists to provide a fuller vision of what urban development should and could entail.

Conclusion

Goldberg was an intellectual as well as an architect. He was perpetually curious and a voracious reader. An active propagandist, he spoke engagingly and often in public. He had studied with Whitehead at Harvard, with Mies and Albers at the Bauhaus. He was familiar with the Chicago intellects of his time, and was key part of the broader intellectual life in Chicago.

Goldberg’s vision was a combination of technical knowledge and personal insights that cut across more traditional understandings. Belonging within a larger modernist agenda, his work was notable for its individualistic, unique solutions to complex planning and building problems. His work suggests a way in which ideas and architectural solutions could be combined, and indeed were, if only for a brief moment.

  1. Carl W. Condit, Chicago 1930-1970: Building, Planning, and Urban Technology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974) 72.