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Marina City: The Material Synthesis of Utopian and Capitalist Ideals

By Calum Dodson (M2 student) | Abstract: This essay uses an oral history report on the Jewish-American architect Bertrand Goldberg to determine the socialist and capitalist strains of his most noteworthy project, Marina City. This analysis compares and contrasts the social aims of Goldberg’s projects with his peer and mentor Mies van der Rohe, whose projects bowed heavily to the capitalist values of real estate speculation and corporate expansion. From his studies in Bauhaus Germany to his constructions in Chicago, Goldberg synthesized seemingly oppositional aims into an image of modern life.

Dodson_figure 1


Bertrand Goldberg is widely known as the architect who builds round buildings, but little is known about his innovative theories of space and his utopian ideas that have generated these sculptural forms.”1 Bertrand Goldberg was born in 1913 in Chicago Illinois to Jewish-American parents. Goldberg’s architecture and his influence as an architect would be one of revitalizing the City. He grew up in perhaps, the most significant of American cities, and would return there after a journey of architectural learning to change its image forever. His unusual education that will be discussed later was vital for the architect. He was exposed, first hand, to architecture in the context of an agitated society and he was exposed to the ideas of Mies van der Rohe. Marina City, a mixed used high rise sitting in the heart of Chicago is one of Goldberg’s most influential projects. It was commissioned in 1959 and completed in 1964.2  Marina City exemplifies how he questioned the mistakes of what he saw in modern architecture in Germany and in Chicago while at the same time utilized some of the social implications present in the Bauhaus curriculum. The unprecedented urban project expresses utopian ideas influenced by his time in Germany, adapted to fit the requirements and technicalities of America. Evaluating the urban problems in America leading up to Marina City, Bertrand Goldberg realized that an urban project must consider things differently than ever before. Marina City epitomizes the ways in which the architect was able to synthesize these ideas into a utopian project for a capitalist economy.

In a conversation between the project client, Bill McFetridge and Goldberg, it is reported that McFetridge said that this (Marina City) was to be no utopian project and that he did not want socialist housing, rather patterns that can be followed by private capital.3 Goldberg was able to devise a project that was radical, yet feasible for an economy and society situated around the private investor and profit driven mindset. “…he seemed to be the last of the 20th Century utopian architects. Most designers had either cynically or pragmatically turned their backs on the old idea that good buildings could change society. Goldberg never suggested architecture as panacea, but his declarations always had a zealous ring to them.” – taken from a Chicago Tribune article published in 1986. The first twenty years of Goldberg’s career can be placed entirely among the following of the Bauhaus. Marina City marks a significant and striking separation from this trend.

The work of Bertrand Goldberg arises from a distinctly unique background making it an interesting subject of inquiry, however, his work is largely underrepresented. Of his roughly 50 year long career, Marina City and the River City I concept represent the humanist and furthermore, utopian ideas of Goldberg. The word humanism will be used in this context not only to describe the organic shapes Goldberg employed but more importantly, the political and social interests that drive his architecture. Goldberg defines humanism, “…to say humanism is to say that we’re made up of lots and lots of different components and different objectives and different reactions.”4  Goldberg uses this underlying philosophy as a starting point to rationalize the utopian characteristics in Marina City and River City I. Utopia is used in this paper to describe an architectural philosophy that aims to provide an idealized life through the built form.

Goldberg began his studies at Harvard College and at the Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Political and economic turmoil was present during his education in America and in Germany, for this reason the questioning of traditional practice and ideals was present at the institutions he attended. Debates with professors and fellow students centered on the social and political problems unleashed by the Great Depression, this began Goldberg’s social and political consciousness. Without these experiences it is unlikely that Goldberg would have achieved the conclusions he addresses in Marina City.

In May 1932 at the age of nineteen, Goldberg left America for Germany. This experience was brief but dense. He finished two years of curriculum in one and was an apprentice under Mies. The Bauhaus introduced him to new ideals of art and architecture. The teachings of Mies, Josef Albers and Ludwig Hilberseimer left a strong mark on Goldberg. He took a planning course with Hilberseimer that dealt with low income and public housing, which demonstrated the Bauhaus ideals of service to society and industry.5  There is a clear lineage between these ideas generated in Germany, not in their physical form but rather in the essence of the idea, and the way Goldberg translated them into built form. Namely, the merging of all programmatic needs to support the modern life and the communal focus of the whole design.

Goldberg was able to reflect and synthesize his education throughout his career. “I must confess that I learned what I found at the Bauhaus long after I left there.”6   The influence of all of this on Goldberg poses an interesting dynamic because there are foundations from his education that remained throughout his career while at the same time, there are significant topics that he criticized. During his time at the Bauhaus, the school was attempting to extinguish the concept of applied style and instead allow architecture and art to naturally form out of society; this is a concept that influenced Marina City as its every component was analyzed based on use.7  He was also appreciative of his mentor, Mies. “Mies, I think, was very helpful in giving me an understanding of the enormous discipline that any creative work requires…I got from Mies an enormous amount of understanding that I would not easily have gotten from anyone else. By understanding I don’t mean necessarily his understanding, but my understanding of a number of things.”8 At the same time Goldberg was critical and oppositional to Mies.

We have just left the Victorian period in architectural and engineering concepts…Gropius, Corbusier (until 1950), and Mies can der Rohe, these men were the romanticists who made of the right angle a cult and who refined the expressions of the right angle architecturally into a creed. Our time has made us aware that forces and strains flow in patterns which have little relationship to the rectilinear concepts of the Victorian Engineer.9 Goldberg transformed what he was taught and what he saw based on his personal interpretations rather than simply reproducing. Marina City is a major project of his that departs from the right angle and the raw Bauhaus ideals to a unique approach that sets him apart from any other architect of his time. It puts Marina City in a category of its own, that of a utopia for the American city.

Marina City demonstrated that a high population density in a well thought out space did not cause any issues. With nine hundred families at Marina City, it is one of the densest populations in the western world and it is perfectly harmonious.10  At the time of its completion Marina City’s apartment towers were the tallest residential structures in the world. Marina City was conceived as a mixed-use complex that invited around the clock use. It includes five distinct structures: two residential towers, a saddle-shaped auditorium building, and a ten-story office building. The buildings total area is 1.8 million square feet. It is a true “city within a city” with a wide variety of programs: theater, a gym, a swimming pool, an ice rink, a bowling alley, a boat marina, shopping, restaurants, offices, a bank, a television station, parking, and housing. In the original plans there was even a health clinic.11 It is also an all-electric complex, which Goldberg had envisioned as something unavailable to urban living at the time.

Marina City was completely unprecedented, derived from the social and economic needs of the American city as the architect saw it. The project was intended to attract people by offering satisfaction to all the needs and requirements of modern American life in one place. Its organic form was inspired by the humanist notions that Goldberg saw were lacking elsewhere in Chicago and in modern urban architecture, he thought that rectilinear housing projects were depressing. He said “I wanted to get people out of boxes, of doors opening anonymously are inhuman. Each person should retain his own relation to the core. It should be the relation of the branch to the tree, rather than that of the cell to the honeycomb.”12  From the central core, the housing units radiate like petals. There are 256 efficiency apartments, 576 one-bedroom apartments and 64 two-bedroom apartments. The efficiency apartments occupy one petal, the one-bed apartments occupy a petal and a half and the two-bed units occupy two petals.13

The service spaces, such as the bathroom and the kitchen are located towards the central core while living and sleeping spaces extend to the balcony. The design of the balcony makes it such that neighbors can see one another from porch to porch. In the construction phase of Marina City, a full size showroom was constructed in order to attract business. The showroom was created with a photographic panorama of the city beyond which helped to portray the feeling of new and dramatic high-rise living. The show room linked commerce to progress, it was furnished in a manner that domesticated the daring concept of Marina City to fit conventional taste. These aspects of Marina City help to endorse the notion of community and utopia living.14

Dodson_figure 2Figure 2. Programmatic elements of Marina City.

Goldberg had a talent for public relations, networking and political maneuverability. It is for this reason that the thesis of this paper argues that Goldberg was able to complete a “utopian” project for a capitalist economy. “Marina City was the largest financial partnership between federal, union, banking, and business interests ever seen in a housing complex on the American Continent.”15 Through the entities of labor unions, Chicago, the federal government, real estate, bankers, and architects, Marina City was able to advance new standards and ideas about urban living in America.

After the completion and overall success of Marina City, Goldberg began to conceive another project that was similar to Marina City yet drastically larger. River City I was his most comprehensive urban project based on his principle of mixed-use complexes. River City I was designed between 1972 and 1979 to be built on 230 acres of land south of the Loop. It combined residential, commercial, recreational, educational and health facilities for over 20,000 people in nine clusters of triad towers. Each of the nine towers consisted of three 72-story towers very similar to Marina City, connected by bridges located approximately every 15 floors. These bridges housed shared community amenities including social spaces and kindergartens. River City was to act as an entire world that would address the general living conditions of the “common man”.16 Goldberg published an article in Inland Architect in 1982 stating:

We have learned to combine many things that people need for the good life: In addition to security, there is a profound need for communication—not just communication by telephone or the written word, but by body language, by activity, by recognition, by joint effort and activity. We have recognized the constant need for support of health, of education, of new enterprise. River City will contain many of those options in living. Its 22 different apartment types will provide computerized education systems for children and adults; a health diagnostic center by Presbyterian-St. Luke Hospital, a 2-way television…” 17

River City I was indeed designed as a new world as it was ten times the size of Marina City. The shear scale of this project implies a utopian influence, as do all of the encompassing programmatic elements of each tower unit. Goldberg’s vision was to revise the city of Chicago and he claimed that all of Chicago could be housed in the 27 Marina City-like towers.18 It would have a new educational system, it would have a new transportation system, it would have a new garbage collection system, it would have a new environment of parks and water and gardens and, of course, buildings. It would be a center not only for residential occupancy but also for working occupancy.19 This un-built project takes what Marina City achieved to a significantly higher level, therefor it is important to consider how Marina City acted as a prerequisite for River City I. When discussing the humanist and utopian attributes of Marina City, this project, although it was designed much later, becomes an imperative piece of the puzzle.

Dodson_figure 3Figure 3. Rendering of River City I illustrating the scale of the concept.

There are many similarities one can draw between the philosophies of Mies and Goldberg. This of course, originates from Goldberg’s experience in Germany. However, the ways in which these ideas manifested into the built form contrast sharply. Both architects reflected on the difficulty of American cities but responded inversely. “Mies assumed that buildings, things and people needed freedom to realize themselves, and he aimed for a kind of order that would relate individualities without impinging on that freedom.”20 A major distinction is that Mies operated within the given site of an urban project and program, and within the limits set forth by the client.21  Mies did not project a comprehensive urban vision where as, in the case of Marina City, Goldberg saw that doing so was the only way to achieve a successful urban project. Goldberg’s complete involvement in every aspect of Marina City’s development mirrors his utopian requirements for the declining urban environment.

That seeking of a new world or new ideas was prevalent certainly right on up through 1960 when I designed Marina City. Look at Marina City as an architectural concept. Certainly it not only was new from a viewpoint of design, but it was structurally vastly innovative. How would one have done that without other people around him, bankers and owners, feeling as if there could be a new world?22 The apartments at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive designed by Mies serve as a comparison to Marina City. Real estate developer Herbert Greenwald commissioned the project; the two towers were completed in 1951. Mies and Greenwald shared similar interests of urban development and modern urban living.23 The goal of this project was to create a building that would be commercially successful and philosophical at the same time. Their intention was to ‘use technology and rationalization to redeem the soullessness of American capitalism, mass society and mediated culture and would enable freer ways of living within it’.24   The towers include less than a third of the units compared to Marina City and only offer housing. Parking was left to the street level, little consideration was given to the context of the site. The impact of Marina City had far greater implications than 860-880 Lake Shore Drive.

Figure 4. 860-880 Lake Shore Drive.

Mies had a particular philosophy that he pushed through his designs. One that was arguably devoid of the humanism that Goldberg focused on. Regardless, Mies held strong ideas about society and about the urban environment that Goldberg had acknowledged in Germany yet his architecture (in retrospect) is lacking something. Mies designed based on where he was and who his client was where as Goldberg, beginning with Marina City, was able to go further.

You could not have contemporary architecture as it was taught at the Bauhaus, as it was taught by Mies, as it still will be taught again, I am sure, without a violent economic and a political change. The value system of modern architecture came from the value system of political rebellion. To bring this back to that portion of my own story, here I was in the midst of a political ferment between the socialists and the communists and the Nazi movement in Germany, and I was with the man who was really masterminding the socialist programs in Germany, to a great extent.25

Dodson_figure 4With clearly similar interests, Mies and Goldberg created obviously different outcomes. Mies’s architecture has been criticized as being ‘unlivable, dysfunctional and even authoritarian’.26 Lake Shore Drive apartments and other Mies designs can be described as architectural jewel boxes that lack a positive urban contextual relationship. To this day, Marina City is regarded as a successful housing project and one that evokes a sense of community. Marina City was a radical utopian project because of the totalizing philosophy behind it, setting it apart from Mies’s architecture or any Chicago high rise at the time. Goldberg stated in his essay Rich is Right, “What the idealistic governments of the 19th century became for people, the Bauhaus became for architecture. Abstract, mechanized industrialized, without concern for humanism, nevertheless they both had a concern for society. Both in a sense have failed to change our values.”27 What Goldberg had acquired in Germany, synthesized throughout his career leading up to 1959, was a key determinant that allowed the architect to formulate a fundamentally unique concept. Marina City demonstrates how Goldberg transformed his ideas of humanism into a subtly utopian project for the heart of Chicago. The design for River City I qualifies this idea due to its immense scale and use of the equivalent building typology. Goldberg’s primary intention was to revitalize the urban environment of America, in particular Chicago.

Realizing the unsuccessful attempts of Mies’s similar intentions, Goldberg developed a concept that would go beyond selling an idea. Marina City was unlike anything before as it questioned the present standards for modern life on all levels.


1 Blum, Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg, Preface.

2 Ibid., 9.

3 Ibid., 95.

4 Ibid., 217.

5 Ibid., 25.

6 Blum, Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg, 14.

7 Marjanovic, Bertrand Goldberg’s Urban Vision, 26.

8 Blum, Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg, 43.

9 Bertrand Goldberg, “Marina City, Chicago, Illinois, “September 1965, 8. Bertrand Goldberg Collection, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago

10 Ragon, Goldberg On the City,  12.

11 Marjanovic, Bertrand Goldberg’s Urban Vision, 49.

12 Ibid., 49.

13 Ibid., 51.

14 Ibid., 51.

15 Ibid., 93.

16 Ryan,  Bertrand Goldberg, Architecture of Invention, 163.

17 Goldberg, Rich is Right.

18 Ryan,  Bertrand Goldberg, Architecture of Invention, 162.

19 Blum, Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg, 259.

20 Mertins, Mies, 445.

21 Ibid., 419.

22 Blum, Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg, 154.

23 Mertins, Mies, 314.

24 Ibid., 314.

25 Blum, Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg, 19.

26 Ibid., 444.

27 Goldberg, Rich is Right.


Bertrand Goldberg, essay Rich is Right, March 4, 1986, published in Progress (Museum of Science and Industry Chicago)

Blum, Betty J. Bertrand Goldberg, interviewed February 12, 1992, Chicago Architects Oral History Project Ernest R. Graham Study Center for Architectural Drawings Department of Architecture The Art Institute of Chicago

Gapp, Paul. “Despite Some Troubles With River City, Goldberg Dream Rises Beyond Ordinary.” Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1986. Accessed May 8, 2015. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1986-05-25/entertainment/8602070677_1_marina-city-bertrand-goldberg-chicago-river.

Marjanovic, Igor, and Katerina Ruedi. Marina City: Bertrand Goldberg’s Urban Vision. 1st ed. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010. 13-132.

Mertins, Detlef. “860-880 Lake Shore Drive: High Rise, Event Space: Living Life Large.” InMies, 314-315, 418-419, 444-445. 1st ed. Vol. 1. London: Phaidon Press, 2014.

Ragon, Michel. Goldberg Dans La Ville on the City.  1st ed. Paris: Paris Art Center, (1985). 181-209.

Ryan, Zoe, ed. Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention. 1st ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011. 20-97,145-185.

Waldheim, Charles, and Katerina Ruedi, eds. Chicago Architecture: Histories, Revisions, Alternatives. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. 226-252.


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