Text description provided by the architects. Along the eastern branch of the Chicago River lies one of the most formally interesting skyscrapers in all of Chicago, Marina City by Bertrand Goldberg. Completed in 1964, Marina City, at the time, was the tallest residential projects in the world and still remains one of the densest inhabited developments. Unlike any project before it, Marina City was an experiment of allocating diverse programs into a “city within a city.” Although, it is not as widely recognized as the Sears Tower or the John Hancock Building, Marina City’s distinctive “corn-cob” shape has a strong presence among modern architecture, as well as Chicago’s skyline.
In 1959 when Bertrand Goldberg was commissioned for the project, he had no prior experience designing at such a large scale; he mainly worked on smaller scale residential and institutional projects. However, the developer, William McFetridge, president of the Building Service Employees International Union, entrusted Goldberg to design a complex that would slow Chicago’s urban exodus. At the beginning of the 1960s, those that lived in the city were growing tired of the dense, overcrowded conditions and had taken “flight” to the suburbs for a more open and accommodating way of life. Marina City was an attempt at combating and reversing the flow of people back into the city, so close to the Loop. It was a model of efficiency and convenience for modern living in a metropolitan area.
Goldberg thoroughly believed that people wanted to live in downtown Chicago. His approach to Marina City was to design a “city within a city” that could fully accommodate people’s everyday needs and activities just a short distance from their homes. It was a method of bringing suburban commodities and ease of access to an urban setting.
At the time Marina City was completed, it was a programmatic treasure trove consisting of a theatre, gym, swimming pool, ice rink, a bowling alley, stores, restaurants, and a private marina for the residents. All of these amenities were just a few of the measures taken to emphasize that everything one can find in the suburbs is available in one small urban area.
Goldberg’s design of Marina City is the first of its kind for a mixed-use residential project. The buildings programmatic complexity and unparalleled formal aesthetic creates a unique presence among Chicago’s skyscrapers. Over the three acre site, two cylindrical residential towers bring urban living to a new found height. The two reinforced concrete towers are designed around a 35’ diameter structural and vertical circulation core that allow for an egalitarian distribution of residential units on each floor. The cylindrical tower design creates 360° views of the “Second City,” while also serving as a structural stabilizer against the strong Chicago winds.
Each tower incorporates a spiral parking garage on the first nineteen floors. It is one of the first non-enclosed parking garages ever incorporated into the design of a residential high-rise. The 20th floor of each tower serves as unit storage and laundry services for the residents. The remaining forty stories of each building offer approximately 450 units; offering a total of 900 units categorized by studio, one bedroom, and two bedroom units.
The units themselves give Marina City its distinctive features; each unit has a balcony that defines the formal “corn-cob” aesthetic. Because of the rhythm of the façade and standardization of the units makes the tower seem as a simple design gesture. However, each floor contains a different type of dwelling unit so that no two similar floors are repeatedly stacked on one another; making for an interesting spatial juxtaposition in regards to the balcony. The wedge shaped units blossom from the core towards the city offering up uninterrupted views of the city. Every unit is especially unit in that there is not a single right angle in any unit. The lack of hard edges and sharp corners opens up the plan of each unit flowing from one space to another with ease.
Today, Marina City still features most of the original program from when it was completed in 1964. The entire complex has been transformed for more contemporary uses; the auditorium/theatre has been converted into the House of Blues, adjacent to the residential towers is the Sax Hotel, and above the marina is an upscale restaurant Smith & Wollensky, while the units have been converted into luxury condominiums making it one of the most sought after residences in all of Chicago. Marina City sits as a modern architectural icon along the Chicago River serving as precedent for contemporary practices of cross-programming and dense urban development, as well as gracing the diversely, magnificent skyline of Chicago.