Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention is the first retrospective of the Chicago architect’s work, and it is the Art Institute’s bid to add Goldberg to the architectural pantheon.
Primarily, though, it offers an opportunity to portray Goldberg as more than a one trick pony. Like many creative people, Goldberg is inextricably connected to his most famous work, Chicago’s Marina City, which has proven a mixed blessing to his legacy. It’s noted for the idiosyncratic imagery of its cylindrical towers, but the organizers of this show might argue that this may be its least emblematic aspect. Marina City, and its designer’s work, are on the surface all about circular forms and structural concrete, but it and he are so much more.
Goldberg emerges in this show as a maverick certainly, as an advocate of curvilinear forms in a period of strict rectilinearity, an expressionist in a rationalist world. But more significantly, it makes a strong case for him as an innovator in areas of urban planning and engineering.
The show is arranged chronologically, but unconventionally so. Alison Fisher who curated the show with Elizabeth A.T. Smith and Zoe Ryan, noted that Chicago architect John Ronan not only produced an exhibition design for the show, but he also suggested that the show begin with Marina City, proceed forward to the end of the architect’s career, then at a logical break in the gallery space, highlight his early works including his industrial designs from during and just after World War II, and furniture and lighting he designed throughout his lifetime.
Both that chronology and the installation design, which features curvilinear spaces, mirrored archways, and a full-size mockup of concrete shell formwork, help to emphasize Goldberg’s accomplishments, many of which are encompassed in, but not limited by, Marina City. While the circular forms Goldberg used in most of his work after Marina City didn’t supplant the prevailing rectangular forms of the industry, the mixed-use “city within a city” concept was highly influential. Materials in the show, and the accompanying catalog illustrate the importance of this concept as a symbol, not for its form, but for its purpose: addressing the rise of suburbia and the coincident decline many American cities experienced after World War II.
After Marina City, Goldberg gained international fame and won many commissions for mixed-use projects. But it was his hospital and medical center works that brought him the greatest success, and it’s probably no surprise that these projects are where his circular space planning—and its correlative exterior design forms—found its truest and most sensible expression.
This is not a show of beautiful drawings. Goldberg was not a draftsman, and most of the materials in his archives weren’t from his own hand. But there’s ample evidence of his creativity and invention throughout. It’s fascinating to trace his design innovations in structural concrete forms to a plywood tube-based railcar he designed just after World War II. It’s also a treat to see a display of home furnishings that were never, regrettably, put into production, and the handsome printed ephemera that showcase his skills in graphic design.
In her in catalog essay, Smith points out several reasons why Goldberg’s reputation has never approached that of the usual suspects mentioned above. Her work, and other materials in the exhibit, make a pretty reasonable argument for a reconsideration.
If there’s any weakness here, it’s a failure to consider Goldberg’s position in Chicago—particularly in concert with his wife, Nancy—as a cultural leader and tastemaker (for that, go to see the fine show of his art and artifacts at Chicago’s Arts Club running concurrently). But the real strength of the show and its scholarly inquiry may be its mandate that we look beyond the most superficial aspects of a designer’s work to understand what he’s really about.