Landmark City

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Marina City’s concrete cores were poured first and then topped with cranes. (Rudolf Ohrning)

Though Marina City, Bertrand Goldberg’s vanguard mixed-use project on the Chicago River, became an official landmark February 10, 2016—less than one year after its application—the architecture community still held its breath. After the tragic loss of Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital less than two years before, no one wanted to take any chances protecting the towers, affectionately referred to as the “Corncobs.”

Completed in 1967, the two 65-story spires, along with a theater and two 10-story office buildings, were substantially funded by the Building Service Employees International Union, a janitorial trade union. The union believed building middle-income housing in urban centers would help reinvigorate the ailing downtown and bring in new janitorial jobs for the large project. This was a shift from the more suburban low-income housing the organization had been building for its members. Goldberg’s unconventional ideas of life in the city made a good match for this innovative approach to job creation.

Envisioned as a “city within a city,” Marina City intended to provide everything its residents would need or want for living, working, and playing. Few projects even today offer the sheer number and diversity of amenities that Marina City does. With office space, a theater, a gym, restaurants, a bodega, the famous balconies, car parking, and, of course, boat parking, the concept was like no other housing project ever built. It would later influence other historic projects, including the John Hancock Tower.

The construction methods used, especially for the towers, were also novel. Poured-concrete cores were built to full height and topped with cranes. Those cranes then lifted formwork and concrete to construct each floor radiating from the cores. When the towers were complete, they were the tallest reinforced-concrete buildings in the world.

Considering all of this, many felt that landmark designation was long overdue, and the fate of Prentice served as a painful reminder. Becoming a landmark is not easy though, even for older buildings, and landmark status carries with it certain responsibilities regarding upkeep. Marina City’s status also adds to a larger conversation about the preservation of modernist architecture, in particular that of oft-abhorred expressionist and Brutalist projects.

Achieving a landmark title in Chicago can be a long and political journey. Just as in many bureaucratic processes, the project will undergo a series of reports, garner recommendations, and secure resolutions before it can be presented the city council for a vote. Marina City’s quest began July 9, 2015, with a preliminary landmark recommendation made by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The reports ordered by the city after that initial recommendation found that Marina City fulfilled five landmark criteria, one of which was its innovative design by a distinguished architect that adds cultural value to the city. Another aspect was its “distinctive physical appearance” that represents a “familiar visual feature of the City of Chicago.”

Now that the complex’s status is official, any major renovations or new construction must pass through the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. Aside from greater protection from demolition or excessive exterior remodeling, landmark status affords the building’s owners a handful of economic incentives such as state and federal tax credits directed at rehabilitation, as well as the waiving of permit fees.

Though many feel the influence of Marina City on the world of architecture was already clear, only time will tell if the example set by its landmarking will help protect other concrete wonders in our city centers. Marina City joins Mies van der Rohe’s IBM Building (now the AMA Plaza) as one of the few modernist buildings designated as a Chicago landmark.

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