Whether you love it or hate it, there are few buildings in Chicago as cool as Marina City. This is to say cool as in Muhammad Ali a.k.a. Cassius Clay cool, and like the boxer, Marina City was a true fighter of a building. It was a new style of city out-fighting. Completed in 1964 in block 1 of Chicago’s relentless grid, Marina City was urban renewal for the middle class, in the city center with swift feet and taunting tactics. Free of the formalism of Chicago’s modernist master Mies van der Rohe, Marina City was an attempt to keep people living and working in the city, “living above the store” as the architect Bertrand Goldberg liked to explain and provided a new definition of city living and (super)urbanism of more context, resistance, program, opportunity, and discussion.1
The abundance of global happenings at the time of construction of Marina City is the story late modernism, national highways, and the sprawl of the city creating an opportunity for the rebirth of downtown Chicago. Post World War II US saw tremendous growth and expansion of their cities and suburbs. From the initiation of the Eisenhower interstate system in 1956 to the new definition of the emerging megalopolis across the urban landscapes by geographer Jean Gottman, the whole world was mega-sizing. In Japan, a young group of new urbanists and architects called the Metabolists were eager to re-vision the new megalopolis using ecological principles to organize the new city. Kiyonori Kikutake’s Marine City was one of the early examples of a metabolist urbanism and shares many formal similarities to Marina City. The difference: Kikutake’s vision was resistant to the whole idea of a city, it started from scratch. Meanwhile, Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City, a pièce de résistance to the infrastructural megastructures pressuring the city to expand, was a ready-to-build metabolic intervention of Chicago’s riverfront.
By 1960, the City of Chicago had reached its population apex and experienced its first loss of population since the city was organized in 1836. Once a model of an instant city of industry and mechanization, Chicago was now facing a new era of growth of highways, homes and shopping malls. World War II had ended almost two decades of social and economic hardship and it was time for families to settle and find comfort in their lives in this new post-atomic age. From 1945 to 1949, new car sales increased ten fold from 69,500 to 5.1 million in the US.2 To accommodate these cars, new highways were being built at an unprecedented pace. In Chicago, the 1950s saw the construction of five major highways: the Bishop Ford Freeway; Edens Expressway; Tri-State tollway; Eisenhower Expressway; and Kennedy Expressway (originally named the Northwest Expressway). While these concrete highways were quickly altering the urban landscape of metropolitan Chicago, Marina City showed that concrete could be used to build fit environments for living as well.
“Marina City has been called revolutionary, but I do not believe along with Corbusier that things are revolutionized by making revolutions. The revolution lies in the solution of existing problems,” explained Bertrand Goldberg in in a lecture on Marina City in 1962.3 This quote reflects Bertrand Goldberg, the ‘Brutalist.’ Brutalism is a way of living with the revolution of modernism–free from the formality of Mies, Corbusier and other first generation modernists, but resistant to nostalgic ways of thinking about the city. By the late 1950s, it was time for an honest modernism stripped of its politics. Although Mies’ Bauhaus was shut down in Germany in 1933, the Bauhaus was already on its way of becoming a way of living and working.
In this regard, it is important to recognize that Brutalism is not about the style, but the resistance to those not yet convinced by modernism (and what becomes post-modernism). Marina City was resistant to a static modernism. Brutalism was, as the late design critic Reyner Banham suggested, honest modernism and in favor of architecture that is reactive and more concerned about the performance of buildings and cities over the formality of the building.4
Perhaps this could be reframed by returning to Cassius Clay. Like architecture, all boxing has its moments of brutality, but was Clay a brutalist boxer? Clay was quick and one of the most elegant and smartest boxers to have played the sport. He did not win with brute force but with in your face confidence, physical preparation and endurance. At times, it could certainly be annoying but it had poetic moments and he was damn good at what he did. The last of which, Clay was brutally honest about it—and that is what brutalism is about, not force but performance.
Marina City is an honest and in your face building. Parking garage, a place to live, a place to work and place to relax, entertain, eat, drink and play. The various activities within the building provide uses not only for the residents but acts as an anchor for the city and neighboring blocks. Think of New Urbanism of today with its emphasis on transit-oriented pedestrian friendly mixed-use communities. Goldberg’s vision of a city within a city was a contemporary refashioning of traditional city values. The programmatic complexity of Marina City is simplified in plan into two towers, an office, plaza, and theater complex. To this end, it achieves more with more and with the material minimalism and structural finesse of a Frank Lloyd Wright building.
“It is necessary to create an architecture of reality,” wrote the husband and wife team Allison and Peter Smithson contemporaries of Goldberg.5 To achieve this, culture and form were to be subtly subversive where architecture should not be submissive to traditional values. This can be equally descriptive of Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali, as well. Marina City advocated for city living and defined a new urbanism with people living and working in the city, “living above the store.” A new (super)urbanism with a density of activity, mobility, and waterfront views.
Marina City, like Cassius Clay, is a wedding of brute mass and consumer society. The building is an opportunistic response to its urban context. The social and economic circumstances presented an opportunity to take advantage of an underutilized prime site along downtown Chicago’s riverfront. Following the modernist agenda, the vision of Marina City recognized the relation between cities and social equity, and initially tried to take on too much. Partially due to its confidence, it attempted to reverse the growing social and economic divisions that have characterized the contemporary city for at least the past 50 years. Demonstrating that all people can live in the city and in tall buildings, Marina City proved its point that there are valid alternatives to city living, and should continue to inspire serious debate about the future of the city. Now, it seems the global debate is finally ready to listen and Marina City’s pugilistic approach needs to move from the boxing ring to the stage.
Despite its concrete structure, the vision of Marina City still has its opportunities. As a pursuit of a total environment it lacks vital systems for self-sufficiency now prevalent in many architectural conversations. This includes many things from food and renewable energy production to community facilities such as schools and healthcare. For all practical reasons this is a good fault, as one cannot live within Marina City exclusively. It is a product of the larger system of the city, and fortunately, there is need for an exterior world around it. Yet, wouldn’t it be great to see the hotel turned into a high school, half the parking converted to vertical farming, Dick’s Last Resort as a grocery store food cooperative, and the marina home to a mobile solar farm?
Which explains why Marina City serves as a model of (super)urbanism–with its honesty and dumb insolence–it has and continues to be instrumental in creating a discussion on the urban integrity of Chicago. Which raises one last point of concern, its sheer masculinity. Some of the units even sport pink kitchens, which is a superficial play on domesticity. Fortunately, things have changed since 1960 and from the outside-in, it is time to revise the way the building works as an infrastructure of performance. To counteract that–and this is not the most honest, efficient or pragmatic of suggestions–let’s paint the whole complex pink. It will symbolize the warning of climate change, as Chicago becomes the new Miami.
Jokes aside, one of the great ironies of Chicago architecture is that the supermodern preceded post-modern, the criticality of the 80s occurred after the post-criticality of the late 50s and the near brutalism of Marina City–a new urbanist non-place for people, cars, boats, shopping, bowling, etc.– works. Is Marina City still cool today? Yes (for now), and more than most buildings, it demands alternative ways of thinking, designing and talking about the city. There is little doubt that we need more demanding ideas now than we did 50 years ago.