‘The Critical Mass of Urbanism’ – Bertrand Goldberg

There was no visit to Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City for me this Christmas… Chicago was amazing in terms of spending time with family and getting acquainted with my baby nephew Eli for the first time. He is pretty awesome. Plans to get on a train and into the city went nowhere though, between holidays and stomach flu — so I read and read some more.

Rare time with family more than made up for missing the splendid corn cobs. Still, I have a bit more to say about Bertrand Goldberg, looking at his own words and reflections on what his architecture meant and hoped to achieve. There were two provocative essays of his in Dans la Ville, and I rather thought I would do a post on each.

In ‘The Critical Mass of Urbanism’, a speech first given before the Union Internationale des Architects in April of 1983, Goldberg reflects on Marina City, which he began building in 1959 for Chicago’s Janitorial union as an affordable housing complex:

Twenty-five years ago I designed Marina City in Chicago. At 588 feet (65 stories),these apartment towers were the highest concrete buildings in the world and also the highest apartment buildings. At $10 per square foot, they were the most economical in the United States. They were the first American mixed-use urban complex to include housing and possibly the first in the western world since the 14th century. They were a technological advance that was designed for a world which believed its urban problems could be solved with technology and facts.

Bertrand Goldberg - Marina City
A view of the office building supported above its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling alley and commercial retail space. The roof of the base is a recreational terrace for the office employees. The ten floors of office space are supported on a transfer system created by the columns.

It is interesting that he zeroes in here on the fundamental shift in power at different scales and the amount of power accruing to city governments in the U.S., so discussed in urban planning and geography. By the 1980s this was a hot topic, though I don’t think it was quite the same when Marina City was built:

The struggle between fact and faith in architecture has been most important in the world cities of the 20th century. Major cities have become city states, much as they were in the 14th century before the development of nation-states. Cities throughout the world again have assumed every power of government except the right to coin money and declare war, and the control of urban power has been under the political groups: bureaucracies and the rich who form the decision-making groups.

I quite love this analysis of all that has gone wrong with this — the distance between cities as they are lived, and professional knowledge and the demands of capitalism.

While government programs for urban development are quantitative and “factual, ” they are not facts as our cities know them through daily living. The conflict between the political rhetoric of government and the capitalistic realism of the private sector has been illustrated in the failures of architectural planning during the past 100 years of effort to “save the city.” (192)

This has meant the city has not been saved. It has meant the hollowing out of the urban core. Goldberg sets out most liberally to try and reverse this trend, to understand how cities are lived, how they improve lives, what practically can be done. This is the best that could have been done, perhaps, without a deeper challenge to capitalism and racism as they are made concrete in the city’s form.

We now must ask a question of our architects: can our almost deliberate urban deterioration be turned? Is there a realistic way toward urban rejuvenation which can shape us, our governments, and our human condition? Amidst the failure of our planners, does the architect know how to make a plan for the possible city, to give us a community we can pay for? A plan which can house both our density and humanism at the same time? I believe yes.

We also must ask a question of our governments about the spiritual destiny of cities: can we, through government action, stop the decay of humanistic values in our cities? Can we self-consciously restore the city as a center of community and the mystery of human warmth and spirit? I believe yes, but not yet. There will be a long delay. These values can be restored only when governments believe in humanism and believe that the city can be its shelter. Perhaps the architects first must believe, as Vitruvius warned, that they must know more about government than the king. Perhaps then the architects can teach the king. (193)

This puts Goldberg squarely into that group of architects and writers who see immense value in the city, who see it as ‘a center of community’ and a holder and catalyst for ‘human spirit and warmth’. So it fascinates me that he is building along the lines of the monumental and the towering and the concrete and Le Corbusier but leaning towards the equally monumental socialist vision of Krutikov, rather than the more patchworked, crooked, intimate and small-scale interventions described by say Alexander or  Gordon Cullen.

What Were Our Cities For?
Our cities, especially our failed cities, were planned in the early 19th century, and urban housing was shaped by the Industrial Revolution. These physical plans, now more than 100 years old, were conceived for a society different from the social change we are promising for the year 2000. Early American cities and their housing were not intended for attractive living, but rather for storing people on their upward trip to riches. In Europe, cities served to trap and store a service population for the elite. Today, within our inheritance of this deteriorated housing, we continue to hope to deliver our social promise for the 21st century. But deliverance is more likely to come from a totally new environment structured for a new society, and it is the shape of a new urban environment that we must now examine. (193)

So what is this new environment, what should it look like? With Marina City, Goldberg sought to create ‘A new form for Urban regeneration’, to imagine and build way of stopping white flight to the suburbs and preserving the necessary density in the city for a feeling of community. In this period when all the literature was promoting the suburban ideal and dispersal of families and homes and zoning to separate residential from commercial, Goldberg was instead promoting their concentration in the name of humanism. He lists the issues created by suburbanisation and lack of density — separating housing from work from culture from activities and entertainment, problems of sprawl and high transport costs.

It is clear that our concept of necessary population density must change to match our needs. But what do we need ? What must our city provide? Briefly, three urgently needed changes must be provided: (1) restore the city ‘s middle income population; (2) reduce the cost of housing in urban centers; (3) provide housing and living environment for new family types. These combined points must be enhanced with the magic element of concern for life that we call humanism.

On the relationship between architecture and density and community, he writes:

More recently we have come to understand density in the same way as the physicist understands the quantities of elements which create fission or fusion in molecular structure. Density is that number of people which creates the human fission or fusion we call communication, which in turn establishes community.

When the sociologist talks about community, does he also include the concept of humanism. Perhaps even faith? Faith in human spirit seldom comes without being reflected from another person. Community gives us that reflection of ourselves which we seem to need for survival. The poetry of our life is in community, and the city in its best form has sheltered and celebrated community.

Can the architect who designs for the facts or urbanism also design for the making of community? I do not believe these questions can be answered by architecture alone. Not until the people and governments training our architects believe in the need for community – believe that urban community is as important as urban economics – can architects once again design cities as the centers of our civilization. When the design of a community is as important as the design of a column, the architect will be able to form these new communities.

‘The poetry of our life is in community, and the city in its best form has sheltered and celebrated community.’ How beautiful that is.

I don’t think it is community exactly that is designed, but rather spaces that foster community. Marina City was Bertrand Goldberg’s attempt to build community through design, and built to cluster housing, employment, culture and entertainment all together:

MarinaCitymodel - Bertrand Goldberg
In addition to the two famous towers, the Marina City ­complex includes ­apartments, offices, restaurants, banks, a hotel, ­a theater, a boat marina, and even a ­bowling alley.

Marina City was the first modern complex in which the combined tenants provided 24-hour use of the facilities, seven days a week, on an urban site. It was the first to reduce the cost of modern living by providing broader use of its services throughout both commercial and domestic living patterns. Marina City also exercised an internal taxation system, and for the first time in America it privately absorbed the cost of supplying some of the social amenities normally provided by the municipal government. Recreation, health care, low cost housing, and access to jobs were supplied within the rent for apartments. (194)

It is also clearly a response to the lure of the suburbs with their lower taxes, their homeowner associations and increasingly privatised nature allowing middle-class people more amenities and better control over them. Goldberg is right that there is much more to this than any architect can control, and could any one person do better to build a utopian project in partnership with a union? What is more depressing, is how this perhaps fed into the increasingly privatised nature of development, the rise of gated communities, the increasing levels of segregation by class and race. As interesting is the question of how the residents interact with and feel part of the city around them if everything they need can be found without ever going outside, catching a train, interacting with many people who are not their neighbours.

But despite the quote from Churchill, I agree with this analysis of city and architect, making it all the more important to juxtapose the ideal with the reality created in terms of community.

The nature of the city is to be densely populated – it is the work of the architect to make it beautiful by making it possible to create community. Churchill said it best : ” We shape our buildings and our buildings shape us.” (197)

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