Remembering Bertrand Goldberg, The Pioneer Behind Chicago’s Corncob Towers

Fifty years ago with the “house and garage” version of the American dream in full flower, mixed-use buildings were practically nonexistent. It fell to Bertrand Goldberg to spearhead the better instincts of modern cities.

If you’ve read your Jane Jacobs, you don’t need us to extol the virtues of mixed-use design: Stuffing housing, shops, offices, and entertainment venues in a single place makes city living a cinch and can promote diversity and a sense of community, to boot. Fifty years ago, though, with the “house and garage” version of the American dream in full flower, mixed-use buildings were practically nonexistent. It fell to Bertrand Goldberg–the guy behind Chicago’s iconic corncob towers–to spearhead the architecture that today represents one of the better instincts of modern cities.


Now Goldberg is the subject of his first (and long-overdue) retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago. Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention includes more than 100 original drawings, models, photographs, and other artifacts, which show the architect as both a devout urbanist and a tireless innovator who could turn a hand to everything from a hospital master plan to a couch to a plywood boxcar. “Goldberg challenged the prevailing high-modernism of the International Style,” curator Zoë Ryan tells Co.Design in an email. “A committed advocate for urbanism at a time when suburbs represented the American residential ideal, he was a pioneer in the concept of mixed-use development and fostering sustainable and diverse communities through the built environment.”

Goldberg, of course, wasn’t the first to design a mixed-use building. But back in the mid 20th century, he did it better than anyone else. Marina City, his most famous work, planted two 65-story, corncob-shaped concrete highrises full of residences, and other amenities like a theater, a gym, a swimming pool, an ice rink, a bowling alley, shops, restaurants, and, as the name suggests, a marina, smack dab in the heart of Chicago. Keep in mind, this was in 1964, when other architects were busy pushing their T-squares out in Naperville. “He envisioned projects such as Marina City as a ‘city within a city,’ where residents could live, work, and play all under one roof as a reflection of changing lifestyles,” Ryan says. Marina City is widely credited with ushering in the residential rebirth of America’s inner cities and has been copied, in various forms, all over the world.

Goldberg brought the same spirit of innovation to hospital design. He developed nine hospitals and several master plans for university health care centers over the course of more than 30 years. They were planned “from the inside out,” Ryan says. “His hospital spaces were inspired by interpersonal relationships and the scale of the human body.” Nowhere is that more evident than at Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago. Built in 1971, it featured cantilevered concrete towers that organized patient rooms radially into four small groups on each floor, with a nursing station at the core, so that nurses could minister to their patients faster and better.

The hospital isn’t going to win any beauty contests. Nor are a lot of Goldberg’s buildings. Nowadays, they look dated and vaguely silly (a giant corncob? With a twin?). But Goldberg’s legacy transcends aesthetics. Cities are growing at a mad pace. More than half the world’s 6.8 billion people live in a city. By 2050, some 70% of the global population will live in an urban area. The time’s never been better to revisit the ideas of someone who was dedicated to making cities a better place to live, right down to the last (concrete) kernel.

The exhibit opens Saturday. More info here.

[Images courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago]


About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.