The many songs of Bertrand Goldberg, architect, artist, visionary.
January 11, 2013 8:44 AM   Subscribe

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. His work speaks with a vocabulary that is still unfamiliar to some and unappreciated by many. Goldberg’s often repeated statement, "for the first time in the history of the world we can build whatever we can think," seems to have been the beacon guiding his career. While many projects have been fully realized, some others have been only partially implemented, but all have grown out of Goldberg’s unique philosophical, aesthetic, and technological thinking.
From the preface to the Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg

Born in Chicago in 1913, Bertrand Goldberg first studied at the Cambridge School of Landscape Architecture (now part of Harvard University), then went to study at Staatliches Bauhaus when he was 18, absorbing the language and theory of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, to solve the problems of the greatest number of people and their widest possible needs. Goldberg paired the transportable, factory produced units and parts for reduced construction costs with modern flexibility of "stronger-than-steel plywood" and concrete (Google quickview; original PDF).

Goldberg's earliest commissions were for single family residences, some of which were just recently re-discovered. From there, he went on to create small public housing complexes to iconic mixed-use complexes, a number of hospitals, commercial complexes, and industrial projects. His career stretched from the 1930s to the 1980s, and while many of his creations still stand (some you can virtually tour in video and print form), others are struggling to compete with demands for modern facilities, with supporters proposing ways to preserve the historic design and continue providing modern services.

If you're looking for more information on Bertrand Goldberg, there are a few key resources online, some of which were highlighted above:
1. Bertrand Goldberg | Chicago Architect is a treasure trove of information and images.
2. Bertrand Goldberg Archive at the Art Institute of Chicago has an extensive online collection, with the ability to zoom into images in the collection.
3. Ball State University has an hour-long audio recording of a lecture by Goldberg, recorded on 1964-12-02, titled "Architect views architecture."
4. ArchiTech Gallery has the text of a speech about Marina City, presented at the seminar on "Architectural Aspects of Edmonton Civic Centre Plan," Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, on September 27, 1959.
5. Forgotten Chicago has a three part series of articles titled Bertrand Goldberg in Tower Town -- Part 1: Bertrand Goldberg’s Commune; Part 2: Postwar Development of Michigan & Pearson; and Part 3: Bertrand Goldberg’s Michigan Avenue Project.
posted by filthy light thief (14 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
If you're looking to sit down and just read, (the first "more information" site) has a beautiful scan of the long out-of-print work Goldberg, Dans La Ville / On the City, in French and English.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:45 AM on January 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Goldberg's Prentice Hospital in Chicago is the subject of a bitter battle right now between preservationists and Northwestern University. NU insists it needs to be torn down to build a new research facility that can't possibly go anywhere else (never mind about that empty lot right across the street).

Save Prentice on Facebook

Goldberg vs. the Wrecking Ball

A Facebook page for "NU Wildcats for Prentice" (which was formed after the university sent letters and emails to alumni asking themto write the mayor and the Landmarks Commission supporting their demolition efforts) says today that a ruling from the judge regarding the stay of demolition may be coming today.
posted by dnash at 9:37 AM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks for this...I've never heard of him before. And I find his Prentice building quite stunning; I certainly hope they can find sufficient skills and imagination - and funding - to adapt and reuse it.
posted by foonly at 9:49 AM on January 11, 2013

dnash, thanks for those details. I can't visit FB pages here, so if you (or anyone else) see anything new, please share the details.

The last two links before the "more information" section (others are struggling to compete with demands for modern facilities, with supporters proposing ways to preserve the historic design and continue providing modern services) link to some other Prentice Hospital articles, with the second link pointing to a proposed design that would augment the existing building and allow for expansion to meet current demands.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:55 AM on January 11, 2013

I've always loved Goldberg's organic forms; River City is one of my favorites, but it seems like his buildings often have problems. There are corners that meet at acute angles, which I can only imagine is unsettling, not to mention hard to fit furniture in. Reinforced concrete can look drab and splotchy, especially when it's wet. When I walked around River City, I couldn't help but notice cracks everywhere. River City was originally planned to be a five-building complex, but instead the one building has an ever-present "Condos For Sale" banner.

I've been following the efforts to save Prentice and just liked it on Facebook, because I'm for preservation in general, but whenever I see it I think it looks dark and menacing, like that building on every collage campus that is rumored to have been designed to fend off a riot. Hopefully a renovation will lighten up the concrete. That's what they're showing in their renderings anyway.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:24 AM on January 11, 2013

> NU insists it needs to be torn down to build a new research facility that can't possibly go anywhere else (never mind about that empty lot right across the street).

NU owns Goldberg's Prentice building, but that vacant lot across the street belongs to NMH, not NU. NU & NMH are separate entities with distinct governance, distinct pots of money, and distinct ownership. NU cannot build on that lot without acquiring it from NMH, just as they would have to do if it were owned by anyone else.

One could make an argument that NU and NMH aren't doing enough to work something out, but framing it as if NU has an unused lot is a wildly misleading oversimplification.
posted by Westringia F. at 12:54 PM on January 11, 2013

NU owns Goldberg's Prentice building, but that vacant lot across the street belongs to NMH, not NU.

Vanity Fair had a piece on Prentice Hospital and included the same error, but they provided thorough correction, which included a bit of history:
Technically, the empty land is owned by Northwestern Memorial Hospital, which is a separate entity from the central university. However, in practice, Northwestern is not a disinterested party insofar as the land owned by the hospital is concerned. The latter is the teaching hospital for the university, and the two entities have a long history of sharing and exchanging land in this area when it suits their shared interests. In fact, they did so when the threatened Prentice Hospital was originally planned. It was built on land owned by the university, later leased to the medical center, and eventually returned to the university.
I wonder if Northwestern Memorial Hospital has any plans for the vacant lot.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:19 PM on January 11, 2013

No idea. And it could just as easily be that NMH doesn't want to be saddled with the crumbling concrete clover of controversy either.
posted by Westringia F. at 1:58 PM on January 11, 2013

Jeanne Gang of Aqua fame is trying to save Prentice by building on top of it. Her proposed building looks amazing (naturally).
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:18 PM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here is a gallery with 3 images of the proposed remodel, which Michael Miner at the Chicago Reader though could look great, or far from that:
The Studio Gang renderings of Prentice do what renderings are supposed to do: make an unbuilt building look so delicious that sensible people will cough up tens of millions of dollars to make it happen. Prentice at night is Prentice on one of those rare translucent nights when light billows like sea spray; perhaps on a lesser night, Prentice would more closely resemble your grandmother's old three-way floor lamp.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:27 PM on January 11, 2013

As far as I'm aware, the Gang proposal is only an artistic rendering, nothing more -- I don't believe that anyone is actively pursuing it in any serious way.

Even as a rendering, though, it's unconvincingly unrealistic. It kinda reminds me of a modeling shot where everything is taller & skinnier than in reality -- a pretty concept, but it'll never look that good when you try it on. Leaving aside the painfully shoddy photoshop job that got them from the 3rd to the 4th gallery images, the buildings around Prentice in the main rendering are totally wrong:
  • There's no way that Prentice could be bridged to the Lurie Cancer Center (the building on the left) like that. Lurie isn't that tall or that close; it's also not black, so would not be the striking contrast to Prentice depicted in the rendering.
  • Perhaps Gang intends there to be a new black building between Lurie and Prentice? In reality, though, there's not the space; you could build something on top of the low part of Lurie, but it would shade Prentice the way the Rehabilitation Institute on the right does now -- see gallery image 1 for the current view.
  • The Rehabilitation Institute is another building which is misplaced, farther away in the rendering than in reality. Prentice is drearily bereft of windows as it is; can you imagine how dark it would be inside if it were flanked by two buildings like that?
  • There's no way the Hancock would be visible above the "new" Lurie; it's barely visible above the real Lurie at that angle.
If you go to 357 E Erie in Google Streetview and turn around, you can get a good sense of how things look from across the vacant lot. Having spent a lot of time in the area, I feel it's a more accurate representation of what you'd actually see than the elevated photo in gallery image 1. Here are three images: 1 , 2 , 3 .

So yeah, it's a fantasy, but even on a flattering night it would look absolutely nothing like Gang's vision. I'll leave it to someone else to photoshop the proposed tower into the real views just to see how amazing it'd look during the day. ;)
posted by Westringia F. at 5:09 PM on January 11, 2013

Yesterday's ruling on the fate of Prentice [Chicago Sun-Times]:
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Neil Cohen refused to overturn a decision by Chicago officials to withhold landmark protection from the Streeterville building. But Cohen left in place for another 30 days an order barring its destruction. The extension will give the National Trust for Historic Preservation time to file an amended complaint about the city’s action.
posted by Westringia F. at 7:54 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the follow-up, Westringia F.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:18 PM on January 12, 2013

Another update: the Chicago Landmarks Commission -- the city gov't panel which previously denied Prentice landmark status and was then sued unsuccessfully on the grounds that had violated its own rules -- ruled again yesterday to deny Prentice landmark status. Preservation advocates are arguing that yesterday's hearing was no less stacked than the earlier one, but the legally the disposition of Prentice is again in Northwestern University's hands. [source: Chicago Sun-Times]

Per the article, Northwestern intends to start demolition of the existing structure in 2015. In principle this gives enough time to attempt a digital preservation -- eg, "streetview" style interior photos and a spacial model of its interior & exterior combined to create a computer reconstruction that would allow virtual walkthroughs (and even permit "restoring" it to its envisioned ideal, complete with modeled original furnishings). Something like this could be a good compromise (it might even make the interior more accessible to the public than a physical preservation), but at this point I've only heard idle speculation about doing something like this -- I don't actually know if anyone is seriously pursuing it.
posted by Westringia F. at 5:08 AM on February 8, 2013

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