Bertrand Goldberg’s iconic Marina City project has been a fixture of Chicago’s skyline for decades. The unique, futuristic, corncob-shaped towers, constructed using innovative concrete pouring techniques, represented a bold expression of design in the late 1950’s. As remarkable as Marina City is from a design perspective, a retrospective on Goldberg’s work at the Art Institute shed light on the architect’s true innovation: engaging with federal officials to redefine the family.
Marina City was designed in 1959, in the midst of a major demographic shift. Families were leaving cities in great numbers for the suburbs, and the Federal Housing Authority backed mortgages for single-family homes as a means of sustaining construction growth. Yet Goldberg was able to successfully convince officials to back mortgages for his new project, arguing that the legal definition of “family housing” should include young couples without children. This feat of progressive thinking helped slow the tide of urban exodus, and represented a willingness of design to engage with policy.
Architects now seem more concerned with branding and self-promotion than with civic or social issues. Since the retreat into academia after the failures of urban renewal, one wonders when similar civic engagement by design professionals might re-emerge. After the real estate collapse of the past decade, designers must look for ways to actively change the regulations governing city-building and placemaking. Instead of hiding in the ivory towers of universities, architects and planners must be the champions of a sustainable future, not leaving the crucial task of building human habitats to the real estate speculators.
Communities stand to benefit from a resurgence of activist design and bold ideas. Imagine if architects and urbanists demanded the Federal government re-examine the policies that exacerbated the last real estate crisis, actively proposing new strategies and principles. Goldberg’s legacy shows us that this is possible, and indeed necessary.
Credits: Photograph by Andrew Kinaci. Image and data linked to sources.