Habitats for Humanity | Essay | Chicago Reader

Habitats for Humanity 

Bertrand Goldberg had a vision for a city center where people lived, worked, and played around the clock. It didn't happen the way he imagined, but the future he pictured is here.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

It was 1961, and architect Bertrand Goldberg was declaring his vision for Chicago's downtown. He told a newspaper, "An error in thinking has led Americans to turn our downtown city areas into canyons of glass and steel, teeming with office workers during weekdays but deserted nights and weekends." Government-backed suburbia, he said, was the rational outcome of America's outmoded notions about what cities should be and do.

Sometimes he called it "Victorian," at other times "Marxist," but always Goldberg spurned the idea that the places people occupy should be strictly defined by function. The philosophy that produced suburbia held that residential neighborhoods, financial districts, industrial parks, and recreation areas must be as separate and self-contained as possible. Goldberg said this design met neither human nor economic needs. No one honestly enjoys commuting, he reasoned, and a downtown that functions only 40 hours a week (while demanding around-the-clock city services) will collect only a portion of the tax dollars that it might.

At the time Goldberg was building Marina City. He believed this union of apartments, offices, and entertainment venues in a single complex on the riverbank at State Street would both return Chicago to the past and point the way to a better future. He called it "the first complex since the 14th-century cities to provide 24-hour use, seven days per week, on an urban site." He shied away from the term that could easily have described his plan: "high-density."

Goldberg was one of many Chicagoans with an idea of how to repopulate a waning city. But he alone suggested accomplishing this through never-before-envisioned numbers of people per acre. Goldberg believed in calling a city a city: through density cities offered their greatest benefits. Eventually he would propose erecting 30 towers, each 72 stories tall, on a single site.

Downtown Chicago is no longer the off-hours ghost town it once was; in parts of the Loop you could say that mixed-use has made strong inroads. But while the architect's diagnosis of the city's problems was sound, the cure--or, we might say, the treatment--has not been quite what he envisioned.

Bertrand Goldberg--"Bud" to his friends--was born into a comfortably upper-middle-class Chicago family in 1913. Encouraged in the arts by his cosmopolitan mother, he turned to architecture during his freshman year at Harvard and continued with it as a graduate student at the Cambridge School of Architecture (later absorbed by Harvard). Attracted to the tradition-bound Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he was encouraged by an instructor to instead attend the more forward-looking and democratic Bauhaus.

Goldberg arrived in Dessau, Germany, in 1932, when the seven-year-old Bauhaus school was only a year away from closure. But the Bauhausian principle of design as the result of problem solving--the antithesis of Beaux-Arts classicism --would shape Goldberg's working life. And while in Germany, Goldberg worked in the Berlin office of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a committed modernist whose glass-and-steel boxes would transform American cityscapes after World War II.

On his way back from Germany in 1933, he met with Philip Johnson in New York and wound up taking Johnson's advice, which was to intern for George Fred Keck, a prominent Chicago architect of the era. Four years later he launched his own firm. Goldberg began exploring the idea of prefabrication--from mobile penicillin laboratories to plywood railroad freight cars. His interest in making quality structures from humble materials and in developing building techniques that were cheap and easily replicable would last his lifetime, and it would help him meet and surpass the needs of clients with limited resources.

By the late 1950s Bertrand Goldberg Associates had designed more innovative buildings than it had built. But Goldberg was starting to get larger commissions, such as the Drexel Town and Garden Apartments at 48th and Drexel, a complex of 64 three-bedroom row houses. It was one of his smaller projects, however, the offices of union boss William McFetridge, that would lead to the crowning achievement of Goldberg's career.

In the 1950s Chicago's population was plummeting as whites fled along newly built expressways to seedling suburbs. In an interview he gave in 1992, Goldberg recalled McFetridge, who ran the janitors' union, saying, "My people cannot get jobs out in the suburbs. People move to the suburbs to avoid paying my people the wages that we need to live. If I could persuade people to come back into town to live by showing them a desirable way of living in town, I would like to do that. Do you think you could design such a thing for me?"

Accepting the challenge, Goldberg began drawing plans for Marina City. The promise of creating new union jobs and bringing Loop workers closer to their own jobs put City Hall firmly behind the project. Not a city planner, Goldberg nonetheless was an intellectual who believed in crossing disciplinary boundaries in the service of ideas. The problem solving that went into Marina City would carry him through the rest of his career.

He believed that high density (Marina City's two 450-apartment towers each occupy a third of an acre, smaller than many suburban yards) was necessary to support the amenities needed to attract new residents to previously nonresidential areas. A downtown, walk-to-work location would appeal to young professionals. Low apartment rents would attract a diverse group of residents and minimize vacancies. Higher business rents would help keep apartment rents down. An entertainment component would be critical.

Marina City was an instant success, heavily praised and soon fully occupied. But though Architectural Forum declared in 1965 that "no recent work of architecture has had more impact on the heart of an American city than Marina City," in fact it spurred little high-density residential construction downtown. Self-contained by necessity, Marina City stayed that way; it couldn't reverse a trend on its own.

As the 1960s waned, urban blight became even more dire. Under Mayor Richard J. Daley, Chicago continued with massive slum-clearance projects, while spending federal money to build block after block of high-rises to house and contain the poor minorities who were perceived as the reason more-affluent whites were moving away.

Goldberg, still in the city's favor for his success with Marina City, was awarded the commission to build the Raymond Hilliard Homes, a four-building CHA project near Chinatown. What he produced resembled the other projects rising along South State Street in scale, but it was something else entirely. Two gently curving buildings housed families and two circular buildings the elderly. There were as many amenities as Goldberg's budget would allow, from a pottery kiln to an amphitheater. Above all, the buildings broke tenants out of the boxes that the standard CHA models were confining them in.

Working within but against the parameters imposed by the CHA and Federal Housing Authority, Goldberg tried to give Hilliard's residents architecture that respected them as individuals. He declared the Robert Taylor Homes to be "the most depressing social statement that this country has ever made! There are 7,000 dwelling units almost identical, which are simply storage places for people." Hilliard was a tenth that size. Goldberg would claim that while fighting to build it, he was told by the FHA that "it's too good for these people."

Even in the city's leanest years, Chicago's business base remained much stronger than that of other Rust Belt cities. But for all the new building in the Loop, it grew dark as the commuter trains pulled out at rush hour. The city needed middle-income people badly, and in 1968 Goldberg started drawing his biggest project yet. There were huge tracts of land available just south of the Loop, little-used railroad yards. Why not put people there?

River City began audaciously, the lessons of Marina City applied on a grand scale. A massive plinth would stretch along the river from Harrison to Roosevelt Road, utilities and parking concealed beneath it. Above it would rise ten "triads," clusters of 72-story buildings joined by sky bridges every 18 floors. The plan provided for schools, health care, churches, and community functions--even light industry. River City would house 30,000 people.

But other people had different ideas about how to populate the center of Chicago. The Chicago Central Area Committee, a businessmen's who's who, hired Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to draft a plan. Released in May 1973, the Chicago 21 Plan made $15 billion worth of recommendations, including a South Loop New Town to provide housing for up to 45,000 people. This proposed development covered a far greater area than River City, from Harrison south past Cermak and from Canal to Lake Shore Drive. The developers of Dearborn Park, as the rival development would eventually be called, thought that what would bring people back from the suburbs were the very things they'd found there: modest density, green spaces, safety.

Chicago chose to back Dearborn Park over River City. The scale and density of River City clearly worried City Hall, where it was feared that if Goldberg's project failed the Loop would be caught in a pincer between Cabrini-Green to the north and something very much like it to the south. When Dearborn Park was finally well under way, the city gave the go-ahead to a redrawn River City that was a fraction of the original.

The defeat was a bitter one for Goldberg. Dearborn Park has undeniably been good for Chicago, but its effect on downtown has been muted by its isolation: it's a cul-de-sac. Some call it a "suburb in a city," and Lois Wille (who wrote At Home in the Loop: How Clout and Community Built Chicago's Dearborn Park) makes a strong argument that this is a good thing; but no one can claim that Dearborn Park expresses a bold vision or makes a particularly good neighbor. It's got one shop, a White Hen. Its lack of through streets barricades the Loop from poorer areas farther south. Its underused open spaces hide from nearby neighborhoods less blessed with parks.

Today, Chicago's center is riding a wave of residential building. Clusters of converted condos cross the South and West Loop areas; new residential high-rises sprout in River North. In the Loop itself, couples and families occupy historic office buildings where before no one slept but clerks at their desks. Faded luxury hotels have been refitted for the hip and well-heeled. College dormitories attract a young population to the Loop, and a huge new hostel accommodates tourists with more shoe leather than cash to burn.

Several new office buildings have also appeared, and retail business continues to be good. State Street might not be what it was when State and Madison was touted as the busiest intersection in the world, but it's up there. Even Sears has returned.

There are new entertainment options too: a museum campus, an expanding Grant Park with its concerts and festivals, Navy Pier, a new film center at State and Lake, a Loop theater district. This summer we'll be riding gondolas on the Chicago River.

After decades of decline, the 2000 U.S. census figures showed Chicago's population rebounding from 2.8 million in 1990 to 2.9 million. The population of the central district--North Avenue to the Stevenson, Halsted to the lake--increased by 32 percent. Mary Ludgin, president and CEO of Heitman Capital Management, says the central city has been hit by two recent waves of settlers. Printer's Row and Presidential Towers kicked off the first, with federal tax credits reducing the risk run by developers building downtown. "This was the first wave of residential," says Ludgin, "which captured a demographic wave of the baby boom arriving college degree or graduate degree in hand and not being particularly interested in commuting to the downtown from Wheaton." These boomers didn't have kids, didn't need a yard, and didn't mind a patchy array of amenities.

The second wave, says Ludgin, arrived over the past decade. Some were empty nesters, a demographic segment that's grown faster than the U.S. population as a whole; others moved in because by now there were enough amenities at hand to make them feel at home. At one time most of the residential population of River North and the South and West Loop lived in transient hotels; now the rental apartment is becoming an endangered species, rare and pricey. Condo companies like American Invsco (a pioneer in the field) stalked new rental buildings, turning many of them condo before construction was completed. Section Eight is a federal program that helped finance the first residential wave by requiring developers to set aside 20 percent of their units as subsidized housing for low- and moderate-income tenants. But after 20 years, landlords' obligation to those tenants expires. As the central city population grows in numbers it also grows in wealth.

So great is the momentum of this transformation that an article in Preservation magazine a year ago suggested that "Chicago may eventually evolve into the modern equivalent of 19th-century Paris or Vienna, with the professional elite in the inner ring, and the working class on the periphery." Surely these words would have sent a chill down Goldberg's spine. His intent had been diversity.

Of course, now we're in a recession. And when, last September 11, two hijacked passenger jets sailing through a clear blue sky annihilated two of America's most prominent skyscrapers, some assumed we would develop a whole new set of worries about living stacked on top of one another. The specter of biological warfare seemed likely to add to the fear of close contact. When not pondering the death of irony, cocktail party chatter speculated on whether Americans would head for the hills.

Will our fresh fears and a dismal economy stifle high-rise construction and launch a retreat to the suburbs? It's too early to be sure, but the consensus among the real estate cognoscenti is a resounding no. Benet Haller, central area project manager for Chicago's Department of Planning and Development, says, "I think the basic components of residential demand are there. It's not a question of whether it will continue, but whether the pace will slacken." His department had projected that the central area's population would increase by 1,600 to 2,000 a year over the next 20 years, and despite September 11 he expects that over the long run those figures will hold up.

As far as a fear of tall buildings goes, Haller points out that most of Chicago's new high-rise construction isn't even that high--from 40 to 50 stories in River North to 20 to 30 stories elsewhere. He doubts that any of these buildings would stand out enough to become targets. His colleague Terri Texley, who's the department's deputy commissioner, says that many people she's dealt with since the terrorist attacks have adopted a perspective that's anything but timid.

"The World Trade Center attacks, anthrax fears, those have helped people reprioritize. They've seen that anything can happen," she says. If the vitality and culture of life in the city attract them, they won't temporize. "They may stop putting off that move downtown, and live life."

"I think it's too early to tell the thoughts of the individuals living in tall buildings," says Ludgin. Earthquakes in Los Angeles and San Francisco cause some residents to move out, she observes, others to weigh the risks and move in. "My guess is that for Chicago some will wash out but they'll be replaced."

Nobody interviewed for this article knew of a central area buyer getting cold feet after September 11. A straw poll of 15 real estate agents found that only one had heard of a buyer with terrorist fears, and that story was secondhand. Perhaps the lure of the present low interest rates has overpowered the fear of terrorism.

Instead of influencing the way Chicago would change, Goldberg's buildings got caught up in the changes wrought by other forces. Marina City went condo in 1977. It suffered through some lean years, but prices in this complex of once affordable rental housing have skyrocketed. The first and only phase of River City was completed in 1985, and that serpentine building has been successful in its own right. With over a million square feet, it's had a large and nearly full commercial component, a healthy variety of businesses, and strong apartment rentals. But the striking structure, built at the south end of a long, empty South Loop parcel, has sat in isolation for 16 years. And it's for sale.

Condo sales there began last April. With studios (or "in-towns") starting at $162,000, and penthouses topping at $803,000, it's sure that River City, for all its striking architecture, won't lend itself to urban diversity. Ironically, what attracts most tenants to it, according to Bob Picchietti, sales manager for American Invsco, is its self-contained, "city within a city" nature.

And soon you won't have to be on welfare to rent an apartment at Hilliard Homes, the CHA project just a short hop from Chinatown. Developer Peter Holsten, the man behind North Town Village (a mixed-income development that is supplanting a part of Cabrini-Green), is working with the housing authority on a rehab and reimagining of all four buildings. Because some bedrooms will be enlarged, the 710 family and senior units will become 654. Of those, 305 (33 percent of the family units and 60 percent of the senior) will be reserved for public housing tenants. The rest will be available to a mix of low-income and market-rate renters.

Ironically, it's Hilliard, once intended to house a narrow economic stratum, that's most likely to serve Goldberg's vision of a vibrant mixed community. Hilliard's more than half empty now. But all of the current residents and some of the former residents will supposedly be able to move into renovated units as they're completed, if they don't mind living with the havoc of construction. In time they'll be joined by a mix of new working-class tenants and, presumably, yuppies--all living together, all in apartments that look the same on the outside. All, insists Holstein, subject to the same rules.

But because of both the perception and the reality of crime in the area, Hilliard Homes will be fenced off and patrolled by guards. It'll be architecture by Goldberg, fence by AAA ironworks.

Now that urban living is chic again, its primary proponent is a dimming memory. If Goldberg's mark on the center of Chicago is merely striking buildings rather than the kind of communities he wanted to create, his absence leaves a huge void regardless. He brought something special to the drafting table: a democratic, human-focused, large-scale idea of development. He had connections, he had successes, and he had tireless energy. The forest of high-rises that he planned for River City might seem unthinkable now, but Goldberg believed he could make them happen.

"I came out of a period when we thought everything would get better if we only were--what?" Goldberg mused in Progressive Architecture in 1995, two years before he died. "Scientific, kind, thoughtful of our democratic obligations, curious, investigative, creative. Money was there to be used to improve the condition of mankind; mankind was there to enjoy the improvements. Scientists have proved that things don't get better, they just change."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy, Curtis Staiger.

Tags: ,

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Keir Graff

  • If You Should Have Any Need at All

    If You Should Have Any Need at All

    • Dec 20, 2007
  • The Courage of My Companions

    • Dec 28, 2006
  • Double Fault

    You won't remember me unless you're a trivia freak with a stack of Tennis back issues, but that's cool. Hardly anyone, even in the industry, follows the game well enough to know anyone but the men's and women's winners at Wimbledon, plus a few other genuine American heroes. ...
    • Dec 22, 2005
  • More »

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories