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Honoring a Modern Chicago Landmark as an ‘Urban Vision’

When construction of Chicago’s Marina City reached completion in the 1960s, it was an architectural and social icon for the city — and beyond. The five-building, mixed-use complex boasted the two tallest residential buildings and reinforced concrete structures in the world. It was also the largest real estate deal in the Midwest at the time, the first federally insured urban housing project, and contained the first circular apartment buildings.

Igor Marjanovic and Katerina Ruedi Ray have co-authored the first comprehensive book about the project. ‘Marina City: Bertrand Goldberg’s Urban Vision’ chronicles the inception, history, politics and design of the complex.

“The fact that there wasn’t a book on the building,” said Ray, “is astonishing given the status of the building in the history of modern architecture and in Chicago Culture.”

[Watch a narrated slide show featuring Igor Marjanovic and Katerina Ruedi Ray and images from their book]

The Idea

Marina City was as much a social experiment as it was an architectural one. Architect Bertrand Goldberg wanted to create a ‘city within a city’ – a place where inhabitants could live, work, and play within the city limits. In fact, by the time of its completion, Marina City consisted of nearly 900 housing units, 170,000 sq feet of office space, a theater, an ice skating rink, bowling alley, several restaurants, stores, a gym and, of course, a boat marina.

But Goldberg couldn’t take full responsibility for Marina City. He found partners in William McFetridge, president of the Janitors’ Union, and Charles Swibel, a successful realtor and later chair of the Chicago Housing Authority. Together, the dynamic trio aimed to reverse the exodus into the suburbs that had marked the 1950s and mustered up the political and public support necessary for the unprecedented venture.

“They sensed or they knew or they hoped that his complex would actually change the city in that direction,” says Marjanovic. “In many ways [it] foreshadowed the later renaissance of Chicago’s downtown and urban renewal that followed and is still continuing.”

The Design

Two distinct apartment towers give Marina City its trademark appearance. Goldberg was as intent on creating rounded and open structures as he was on revitalizing downtown Chicago.

Round buildings appealed to Goldberg structurally and conceptually. As an engineer, he found the circular tower to have engineering advantages. The shape helped save materials and actually made it more resistant to wind, helping combat Chicago’s lake effect.

Conceptually, Goldberg wanted to eliminate long corridors and boxed living spaces, something he called ‘psychological slums’. The round structure helped facilitate a sense of equality among tenants. Everyone had equal access to elevators and everyone had a room with a view. Finally, the curvature opened apartments up to the city. “With its gently tilted walls opening towards the city, the skyline of the city actually becomes your living room and the generous balconies extend that idea,” says Marjanovic. “The image of the city becomes very present in each individual unit.”

Life Today

More than 50 years after its inception, Marina City is still bustling. The complex hosts Chicago’s famous House of Blues, Hotel Sax, a 24-lane bowling alley (down from the original 54), five restaurants and the boat marina. The towers have been featured in films like “The Hunter” (1980) and on album covers.

By many estimates, it was not only an architectural success, but also fulfilled its social promise. The area surrounding the complex, an urban desert in the 1960s, is now a vibrant neighborhood, and the notion of more livable but also affordable, urban housing options is no longer so radical.


Editor’s Note: This article was reposted after an error was fixed in the video.

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