February 28 2013

Bertrand Goldberg and Marina City: Architecture’s Lost Civic Engagement

Marina City

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.

Marina City Floor Plan

Marina City's Floor Plan

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.

In what ways would you like to see architecture re-engage with civics?

Credits: Photograph by Andrew Kinaci. Image and data linked to sources.

Andrew Kinaci

After graduating from Princeton University with an A.B. in Architecture and a Certificate in Urban Studies, Andrew Kinaci set out to the Midwest to break out of the insular world of academia, and into the direct service of non-profit work. After a year working on Chicago’s West Side with a social enterprise specializing in re-entry employment training for ex-felons, Andrew now works for an organization conducting energy audits of multi-family affordable housing buildings. He will be blogging about the many ways Chicago is seeking a more sustainable and equitable urban future.

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 28th, 2013 at 9:02 am and is filed under Architecture, Government/Politics, Housing, Land Use, Social/Demographics, Urban Development/Real Estate, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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One Response to “Bertrand Goldberg and Marina City: Architecture’s Lost Civic Engagement”

  1. Preservation or Progress? The Battle for Prentice Hospital | The GRID | Global Site Plans Says:

    [...] Goldberg’s civic legacy was highlighted in his engagement with Federal regulators during the Marina City Project, another prominent building of his remains mired in a preservation struggle. The Prentice Women’s [...]

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