The year 1945 represents a significant focal point in the career of Bertrand Goldberg (1913-1997) and presents a unique opportunity to assess the legacy World War II had on his architectural body of work. Goldberg essentially began his career during wartime. His studies under Mies van der Rohe at the Berlin Bauhaus in 1932-33 were cut short due to rising anti-Semitism and, after gaining experience in the offices of Keck and Keck and Paul Schweiker, and Goldberg opened his own architectural practice in Chicago in 1937, only two years before the declaration of war in Europe.

Like many wartime architects and engineers, Goldberg’s early work centered primarily around the development of prefabricated structures. The federal government was interested in industrialization and in the creation of a prefabrication industry that could provide housing in the event of war1. The seeds of prefabrication, however, had been germinating in the previous decade. The role of architectural design was shifting away from purely aesthetic considerations and becoming more integrated with the creation and advancement of manufacturing processes. This modernistic approach was particularly evident in the Bauhaus school, where the architect became a social designer, creating “everything that has to do with living, including pots, pans, autos, clothes, dance, furniture and buildings.”2 Additionally, the 1933 World’s Fair heightened awareness of new industrialized methods of construction and the possibility, for example, of manufacturing an inexpensive house in a factory equivalent to the cost of a car.3

Goldberg viewed prefabrication as a process where “the economy of providing shelter became more important than the aesthetics of shelter.”4 They were, after all, “building houses for an industrialized class, not the suburban wealthy.”5 Though, perhaps, a certain restraint or minimalism was important, Goldberg thought “good design could still exist in a spatially confined shelter.” 6 Two of Goldberg’s earliest projects to manifest these concepts were the government-sponsored Standard Housing developments in Suitland and Indian Head, Maryland. In order to confront the severe housing shortage created by the war, various architects were given plots of land and asked to construct comfortable and affordable housing on a rapid timetable. Goldberg’s distinct ability to integrate planning and design skills with engineering and construction techniques successfully realized the systematic production of fifty-seven prefabricated houses manufactured at factories located in Anderson, IN in 1939 and Richmond, VA in 1940.7 These projects were regarded as critical to the war effort and prefabrication became an “essential industry.”8

Goldberg also applied his talents in the service of the Board of Economic Warfare, Reoccupation and Reconstruction Division of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Bertrand Goldberg designed two mobile structures to assist the war effort. For the North African theater, he created a traveling delousing unit to address the threat of typhus fever epidemics among both military and civilian populations. Drawing upon some of his earlier mobile mast-hung designs for an ice cream store and gas station, Goldberg created a convertible truck that could easily be erected in one day. Constructed of non-critical materials such as plywood and canvas, the truck housed a permanent staff of three: a receptionist, a male and a female nurse, as well as all equipment and supplies for the temporary staff of five: a stoker, one female dressing assistant, two male dressing assistants, and a translator. The only site requirements were a minimum of 300 gallons of water and a good supply of wood or coal.9 After dividing the men and women, the unit’s plan of operation involved the fumigation of their clothing in the truck body while the people were showering. A maximum of 1,000 people could be served in a 10-hour day. With only five movable parts, an electric fan that ran by truck batteries in each of the four chambers and one pump to reuse 300 gallons of water if necessary, the unit was designed to be relatively inexpensive, costing approximately $4,000. The delousing unit was never realized because the chemical agent DDT was determined to be more effective at killing the typhus bearing lice.

The second construction design, developed in partnership with Westinghouse Electric and Goldberg’s Standard Fabrication Corporation, was for a mobile penicillin laboratory. With the advent of the war, the demand for penicillin increased beyond current production capabilities. Goldberg’s structure, made of stressed skin plywood, facilitated not only the culture and development of the vaccines, but also included packaging and distribution services. Designed like two boxcars placed in a “t” formation, the penicillin mold could be planted in the front section of the lab and then grown in the upper room with controlled temperature and humidity within three 10. By the time the model of this lab was developed, the war was nearly over and the demand for penicillin was decreasing. Therefore this project remained unbuilt.

Economic use of materials was one of the priorities for a wartime government and the ability to maximize and reuse materials was encouraged. Goldberg met this demand by designing a convertible shipping crate for a Bofors 90mm anti-aircraft gun. Once delivered to the field, the crate could easily and effectively be converted into temporary portable military housing. This was a more successful O.S.S. project and Goldberg states that between 250 or 500 were built.11

Following the war, Goldberg expanded upon these principles of prefabrication and systematic development that would remain a part of his procedural approach to architecture and design throughout his career. After an unsuccessful attempt to manufacture and market a prefabricated Stanfab bathroom unit complete with all supply and drainage piping, Goldberg worked as a consulting architect for the Pressed Steel Car Company from 1949-1952. There was a great steel shortage right after the war and P.S.C.C. president John I. Snyder, Jr. was interested in making prefabricated plywood panels for a railroad freight car without steel. Expanding upon the tubular design of the mobile penicillin lab, Goldberg designed, engineered and patented stressed skin plywood and plastic monocoque railroad freight cars12 in order to present a viable alternative to conventional steel cars.

Goldberg had been interested in monocoque or stressed-skin construction methods prior to the war. This single shell technique, applied to military uses such as PT boat hulls and some airplanes during the first World War, involved bonding molded plywood to a wood frame in such a way that the need for an internal metal brace or framework was eliminated.13

The name “Unicel” refers to this cellular lamination process that fuses the exterior elements – plywood skin, weathering films and “paint” together with the interior frame and laminated roof, side and end cores.14 These elements can all be seen in the cut-away view. In order to manufacture a freight car of this type, Goldberg adapted the tools, dies and press he developed for the Stanfab bathroom to make a slab of plywood 10′ wide by infinite length.15 This kind of tubular construction, the ability to take individual panels and convert them into a single structural tube, was part of a patented invention that advanced commercial manufacturing techniques previously unavailable before and during the war. The freight car is often referred to as “plastic” because plywood was used like fiberglass or carbon threads are in plastics today, to reinforce structural tension.

Goldberg’s tubular design for the Refrigerator and Ventilator cars met a demand for economy of space, materials and function. These plywood freight cars, 10′ wide x 10′-12′ high x 40′-60′ long, were amazingly strong and held up well during crash tests because they were monolithic and able to distribute stress throughout the structure, as opposed to conventional steel cars, that would have concentrated six 12″ steel I-beams on the car ends to resist impact.16 They used “twenty tons less of critical metal than a conventional steel freight car, carried a bigger payload when full and weighed less when empty. They also served a dual purpose: to carry either perishable food or ordinary cargo. The cars utilized a new mechanical refrigeration, instead of conventional ice-cooling. The Frigidaire unit ran on diesel power en route then plugged into electrical outlets at sidings or warehouses. The car gained 75% more capacity with this type of refrigeration. The car also cost less than standard refrigerator cars and half as much as a conventional boxcar.”17

The Technical Committee of the American Railroad Association approved the manufacture of 5,000 cars and 500 were shipped from the factory at Hegewisch, IL to the Arabian-American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia.18 Although the Army Transportation Corps and the Department of Defense met with plywood industry representatives and seriously looked at the Unicel product as a viable substitute for scarce metals on October 25, 1951,19 in the end the Executive Committee of the American Railroad Association rejected it on the basis of the broad ramifications faced by the steel industry if both plywood and lumber were made to supplant or extend metals and other critical materials.

When the freight car product failed to enter mass production, Goldberg and his partner Leland Atwood (who had previously designed prefabricated housing for Buckminster Fuller and served a draftsman for David Adler and George Fred Keck) again readapted and remarketed their product with Pressed Steel Car Company as five-room ?Unishelters,’ prefabricated housing that could be built for less than $8,00020 , and the Swift Cold Front Express trucks that featured a frameless trailer. The U.S. Army bought some of these Unishelter units that, like the Bofors 90mm gun crates, served a double purpose as both a shipping container and a house. These were sent to Alaskan army installations.21

Goldberg never entirely abandoned the methodologies he developed during his pre- and post-war years. He continued to create designs independently and then modify them to address the specific requirements of potential projects, much as one would change a mold at a factory. These paradigmatic “variations” raised Goldberg’s visibility and left an invisible signature that imparts a distinct familiarity to his easily recognizable structures.

This practical, multi-lateral approach served Goldberg well. As his career advanced, he began to synthesize multi-disciplinary techniques, theories and designs into utilitarian and somewhat utopian applications. Goldberg always considered the sociological and economic impact of architecture, particularly in the urban environment. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, city governments began to recognize and confront the problem of “urban flight” and the residential, commercial and labor-related consequences of this contemporary phenomenon. Goldberg presented an architectural alternative. Drawing upon the material and economic reutilization strategies he gained while working on wartime prefabrication projects, the architect developed multi-use structures that combined both the housing and consumptive requirements of society. The earliest articulation of this concept to integrate residential and commercial uses , and the project that Bertrand Goldberg is best known for, is his iconic Marina City complex in Chicago (1963). One reason for the success of this project was the extension of Goldberg’s vision beyond a single architectural discipline to utilize a synergetic approach that combined the fields of architecture, engineering, technology, development, construction and marketing to present architectural solutions to economic and social issues faced by urban centers. Goldberg’s ability to successfully implement several viable new techniques and solutions, such as the recycling of concrete forms for up to eighty uses and the restructuring of zoning codes to include “planned or mixed use development,” kept Marina City feasible, construction costs low, and effectively ignited an urban revitalization movement – all semblances of the spirit of the post-war era. Although Goldberg’s work during the war and post-war periods was similar to projects conducted by many other architects, Goldberg was unique in terms of never relinquishing his interest in systematic design-build development that he gained circa 1945.

  1. Goldberg, Bertrand and Betty J. Blum. Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg. Chicago, 1992, page 118.
  2. Ibid, p. 81.
  3. Ibid, p. 125.
  4. Goldberg, Bertrand. Memoirs – Presque Perdue, March 7, 1985, page 4.
  5. Goldberg, Bertrand and Betty J. Blum. Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg. Chicago, 1992, page 125.
  6. Goldberg, Bertrand. Standard Houses Corporation transcript, page 1.
  7. Goldberg, Bertrand and Betty J. Blum. Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg. Chicago, 1992, page 143.
  8. Ibid, p. 143.
  9. Board of Economic Warfare memo dated February 4, 1943.
  10. Ragon, Michel. Goldberg: dans la ville, on the city. Paris, 1985, page 138.
  11. Goldberg, Bertrand and Betty J. Blum. Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg. Chicago, 1992, page 145.
  12. Bertrand Goldberg Associates History, page 5.
  13. “Monocoque and Truss-Type Construction.” U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission.
  14. Railway Age (October 1950), page 69. From Bertrand Goldberg scrapbook, Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago.
  15. Goldberg, Bertrand and Betty J. Blum. Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg. Chicago, 1992, page 153.
  16. Ibid, page 152.
  17. “Plywood Boxcar Doubles As Reefer.” From Bertrand Goldberg scrapbook, Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago.
  18. Goldberg, Bertrand and Betty J. Blum. Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg. Chicago, 1992, page 152.
  19. “Plywood as Substitute for Metal Discussed by Defense Officials”. Defense Production Record 1, Volume 27 (November 1, 1951).
  20. “Plywood and Plastics Make Portable Home for Fast Relocation.” Wall Street Journal, May 9, 1952.
  21. Ragon, page 142.