Tuesday, March 19, 2024

River City Marina


    Several Chicago architects are remembered for their fondness for particular shapes. Harry Weese, for instance, loved triangles — the city's two triangular buildings, the Metropolitan Correctional Center and the Swiss Hotel, are his. 
    Bertrand Goldberg worked in curves. He's best known for Marina City, the twin corn cob towers between Dearborn and State, just north of the Chicago River. They were iconic symbols of the city, briefly, between their completion in 1967 and when the Picasso sculpture a few blocks south replaced them at the center of our civic imagination.
      Those aren't the only buildings — and I think I'm correct using the plural, since there are two — Goldberg designed downtown. Business Monday morning took me to two of them. First,  his lesser known River City Marina — sort of a squashed, serpentine, version of Marina Towers, with wide oval windows, also on the river, its southern branch,at Wells and Polk. 
     The ground floor is big, sprawling, spread out, mostly empty and poorly marked, and as I searched for the room I was looking for, I passed the study area above. 
    What caught my eye? The books of course. At first glance I thought they were a wall of decorative volumes, with color coded spines. But a second look revealed it to be something worse — a photo mural of books. The giveaway was how outsized the books are — too big to be real. Kinda nightmarish, really. From font of knowledge to exaggerated graphic device in one generation.
      Which raised the question: why? To create a scholarly atmosphere? Be artistic? Fill a blank wall? Then why not use a photo of actual books at ordinary scale? Or heck, install actual shelves and stock them with real books of some sort. A little more cost and effort, sure. But perhaps worth it. Books are cheap enough nowadays, you can buy them by the yard or the pound. As ersatz as that seems, this is worse.
      The book mural seems a triple whammy — books chosen for their dust jacket color. And then photographed. And then made huge. Is that where we are now? I suppose. It didn't help that I had been the only person in my Metra car consulting an actual physical newspaper. Nearly an affectation, like wearing spats.
     I've only stepped in Goldberg's Marina Towers once, years ago. We were looking for a place to live downtown, and my wife and I figured we'd check out the famous, pie-shaped apartments with their balconies overlooking downtown. Only I never made it past the lobby — too dreary. I didn't even like walking through once, and turned around before I got in the elevators, thinking, "I can't come home here." Maybe they've remodeled it since — I don't want to malign the place unfairly. But River City felt the same — we had been there years ago, my wife and I, scouting out places to live. River City seemed the sort of place you'd live on your way to Mars. An architectural misfire, a literal dead end. Do any readers live there? Am I missing something?
    Oh, and the third Goldberg buildings were the Hilliard Tower Apartments on Cermak, passed on the way from River City to McCormick Place. A pair of big round towers, Hillard seems like Marina City grown squat and fat. Much of that housing is for low income seniors. Perhaps I'll be visiting there next. 

Hilliard Tower Apartments


  1. I have friends who live there, so I've been a visitor for many years. I can't recall the "earlier" lobby. The current lobby feel neither interesting nor offensive, just unremarkable. I Googled for images and was surprised to find this long a story about the lobbies (and see one of my friends smiling back at me): https://www.marinacity.org/history/mobi/new_lobbies.htm

  2. Yeah, great architects don't always make great places. Like Walter Netsch, who imagined that his original Illinois Circle campus would be a recreation of the great Greek intellectual spaces, inspiring students to debate and learn ala Socrates, et. al. Instead, it was a barren, windswept no-mans land which students avoided like the plague, until it was remodeled many years ago.

    Oftentimes, in their hubristic rush towards glorification, the Great Men of Architecture (and they most always are "great" men) forget that whatever they design and build needs a human component.

  3. I've been in an apartment on the 45th floor of Marina City. They're really weird. It's very noisy up there, as you hear all the street noise. None of the windows open up, only the door to the balcony opens. Above that door is the unit's air conditioner. Unless the unit has been redone, the bathroom is dark & they're small & because of the reinforced concrete construction, no way to enlarge it. The lobby has been remodeled & is far better than it used to be. But when you get off of the elevator, if you go the wrong way, you end up circling the entire hallway. They also allow barbecuing with charcoal there & every once in a while, some dimbulb throws still burning coals down the garbage chute, causing a fire in the dumpsters below & that causes the smoke evacuation doors to open up in the building & if you look in, you see this large empty hole in the center of the building that has fans at the top to remove smoke from the building.
    All in all, I'd never want to live there.

  4. 1967. A summer job at ABC, I was sent to Marina Towers to pick up some artwork for the weatherman. I remember the hallways as dark and confining, uncomfortable actually, and I had to circle back to find my destination. The apartment felt small, but I didn't venture too far into the unit. There was also something uncomfortable inside the door, which probably stamped a memory deep into my brain, reinforcing the whole experience for all these years.

  5. In the early 70s, my dad sought out MC as his newly sprung swinger bachelor pad but we saw an article in the S-T about a pregnant lady finding herself trapped with a river rat in the elevator there. So he passed. River City looks sad, Jetson's unrealized fantasy housing project.

  6. I really like the photo mural and rug area, but not the dark ceiling with the flood lights, that seems to make it have a haunting, lonely atmosphere.

  7. Bertrand Goldberg had a "thing" about round windows and rounded buildings. (Remember the old Prentice Women's Hospital? Looked like a sprouting four-leaf clover on steroids? That was his design too.) While his buildings had a distinctive love-it-or-hate-it style (I was not a fan), I think what may have worked against some of them (e.g. River City) was being plonked into an area that wasn't really developed yet and to which people didn't routinely go for daily activities. Their symmetry seemed to work against them as it's hard to add an addition to a 360° rounded building that doesn't look stuck-on (although Prentice seems to have been demolished simply because the hospital wanted to do something completely different on the site). River City was originally intended to be a city unto itself, but never made it beyond the initial construction of the buildings there now.

    P.S. That book wall is a stock image that's available as wallpaper at normal size (I agree that scaling it up beyond life-size looks weird), and in original form it extends even wider, beginning with black books on the left through to white books on the right, though in some Googling I could not turn up the original location where the photo was taken. Somebody had both a lot of books and an enormous amount of time on their hands.

    1. actually, the units inside the river city joint are as dreadful as everything else. tiny little duplexes difficult to maneuver around and through

  8. In 1971, I worked in a long-gone auto parts warehouse that was kitty-corner from the Hilliard Towers, at Cermak and State. They were built in 1966, so they've been around for a while. The AIA Guide to Chicago, a wonderful book to have when you're out exploring the city, calls it "one of the city's best examples of high-rise living"...despite its prison-like, institutional appearance. The place looks like one of those mega-dorm complexes that you'll find at Ohio State or Kent State. or on many another Midwestern multiversity campus.

    The 22-story round towers have wedge-shaped apartments around a central elevator core, thus minimizing corridor distances for the elderly occupants. Hilliard Towers has national landmark status. The AIA guide concludes: "Its continued appeal to tenants inspired an exterior restoration, paired with a gut rehab of the interiors, to give it another half-century of life" In plain Chicagoese: "This ain't no Cabrini-Green."

    When I saw it daily, over a half-century ago, Hilliard Towers depressed me, and I felt sorry for the inhabitants of what I thought was merely just another CHA "project"... a circular warehouse for sad and lonely old folks, who were counting down to the end of their miserable existences. But looks can be deceiving, and they certainly fooled me, at 24. Maybe it's not all that terrible. The AIA doesn't seem to think so. And now I'm more than old enough to live there. It all went by so fast. Not poor enough, though. Something to be thankful for.

    Hell, at least the occupants don't have to deal with any steps, in a two-story bungalow with a basement, as I will have to do in the next few years. My wife says we'll probably have to move eventually. The hell with that noise. I'm too old for packing and moving and unpacking. Hopefully, I'll just die right here, perhaps while watching the snow pile up.

  9. A number of years ago my husband and I were looking for a small condo in the city. We had recently found out we were going to be grandparents and would not be spending the winter months in a rental in CA. We worked with a terrific realtor and found a great location on Dearborn between Lake and Wacker. We did inquire about Marina Towers and our realtor said he wouldn't recommend one since they were old and the balconies ofter needed replacement. We did have a great view of them from our balcony-lovely Xmas decorations on some during the holidays.

  10. I always study the photo at the top of your page first, before reading what you have to say. I had a visceral reaction to the color-coded books today. Nails on chalkboard. My 2nd reaction was to the size of the books. The huge books were reminiscent of my past experiences shopping for wall paper. I didn't realize the books weren't real, though. That does, indeed, make it worse.


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