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Bertrand Goldberg
Raymond Hilliard Homes
Chicago, 1963-1966

Bertrand Goldberg’s approach to architecture is defined by the experimentation and search for spatial and tectonic inventions

In today’s architecture, we generally miss a certain modernist ethics, proper of authors who considered every single commission worth of their focus and dedication, no matter what the financial investment and the social standing of the final recipients were. Mexican architect Mario Pani was an example of such attitude, drifting with grace between the designs of the yacht club of Acapulco (1954-1955), destined to welcome an international jet-setting gentry, and the massive projects for affordable housing complexes in Mexico City, intended to shelter a low-income but emerging middle class (Multifamiliar Aleman, 1948 or Unidad Nonoalco-Tlatelolco, 1960-1965). Concentrating on the second post-war period, one can recognize a similar approach across very different contexts: architecture was the territory of experimentation at the service of a general improvement of living conditions. Sometimes the creativity and prowess of designers was applied to projects for the well-off while in other occasions they supported the idea that the advancement of the working class or the less-favoured segments of society would be accompanied by innovative design solutions. 

Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg could be considered as another representative of this position. In his work, spatial and technical solutions were not limited to a certain segment of clientele but instead were offered to very different stakeholders. The recurrence of certain forms, details and building techniques corresponded therefore to two intertwined intentions. One, more expressive, can be associated with the pursue of a signature style, where architectural tropes were signifiers of the author aesthetical baggage: the rounded and globular shapes of the facades, make each building by Goldberg a building by Goldberg, independently of the program and the budget. The second intention was to use each occasion also to further implement, through small improvements, tests and experiments, on the previous spatial and tectonic inventionIn that sense, it is also not a mere coincidence that Goldberg operated in Chicago, thus exposed to the legacy of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: as for the post and beam steel frame incessantly refined by the German master, one can see a progression where a singular motif is continuously used and adapted from one project to the next.  

While Goldberg departed from Mies van der Rohe legacy, for technical and expressive reasons, the consistency of the exploration was the same. From the residential towers of Marina City (1960), overlooking the Chicago River to the social housing complex of the Raymond Hilliard Homes (1963-1966) commissioned by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). The poured concrete petal shapes of the slabs of the apartments, allowed to diminish the load on the structure, gaining more surface for each unit while providing variety and differentiation and therefore escaping from the rigidity associated with the orthogonal collective housing projects that were massively built across the USA. While in the Marina Towers, the rotation of each apartment impressed diversity, as the views and impact of solar lighting varied, but the overall logic was simpler, at the Raymond Hiliard Homes, Goldberg achieved a more complex organization. The Marina Towers can be read as two stand-alone buildings, just close, while the juxtaposition of the different elements of the Raymond Hilliard Homes become an urban environment, a term used by Golberg himself, to explain his objective to provide a wider array of conditions, conducive to offering to the different families located there a stronger sense of identity.  

The complex is composed of four buildings, two curved high-rises for large families and two “corn-cob” towers for the elderly. The slip form shells allowed to bear the entire load of the buildings, thus eliminating the central steel core that was necessary at the Marina City towers. The plan of the two round towers reveal how the centre is occupied by a thin walled core of stairs and escalators instead than the hefty structure at Marina City: each shell is prefabricated and it is the geometry of their juxtaposition that allows the building to stand, resisting also to wind and horizontal stresses. Each apartment is composed by two units, one for kitchen and living and the other for bedroom and services. Within the constraints of an assigned square footage, the divergence of the walls, gives the impression of a wider space and allow furniture to be moved freely. Goldberg masters the subtle art of compressing space to its maximum utility while leaving freedom where most appreciated. From the outside the rhythm of the cells that respond during the day with variations of shadows avoid the monotony of the facades of the conventional social mass housing of the period.

The two high-rises for families morphed the same concept. Here the individual cells, that host the bedrooms, are aligned following a curve. Behind them are located the common spaces of each apartment – kitchen, dining, living – that give to a wide external balcony from where to reach the elevators and stairs and the common laundry. The efficiency of the precast concrete and the overall geometry of the composition allowed structural walls to be thinner than 30 cm and non-structural partitions to measure just 14 cm, thus allowing to stay within the budget limitations. The stacked balconies face the inner centre of the complex, where, at ground level, gardens, community centre and an open-air theatre are located. While in Marina City, the lower levels of the towers were destined to fancy commerce and activities, there, the ground floor was conceived as a social condenser. For Goldberg, the provision of services – he was especially proud of the open-air amphitheatre that could seat 800 – was a mechanism to provide multiple activities and experiences especially for the youth, in a critical moment when already opinions in the USA were expressing concerns about social housing in high rises as a recipe for disaster. Goldberg later declared “that children can lead a very exciting and happy life in a high-rise building is demonstrated daily in the upper classes on Lake Shore Drive.” 

In July 1966 Goldberg celebrated his 53rd birthday at the construction site of the Raymond Hilliard Homes. “Goldberg, likely dressed in the gold suspenders, speckled shirt, and gold sneakers he often wore for such occasions, had the construction site decorated with Japanese lanterns strung up on bulldozers and other heavy equipment, and set trays of canapes out on two-by-fours. His 50-odd guests, culled from the city’s social, cultural, and business elite, chatted and danced to live music. Some even donned hard hats, but as the night wore on and fear of falling construction debris was subdued by gin martinis, the hats disappeared.” (1)

Nothing summarizes better an idea of a democratic architecture, where the dwellers of social housing by the CHA would have enjoyed the same qualities of the wealthier owners at Marina City. 

(1)

Dukmasova, Maya, “The Goldberg variation: High-rise public housing that works”, 5 October 2016, https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/hilliard-homes-goldberg-public-housing-high-rise/Content?oid=23812560

(2)

Sources

Klutz, Heinrich, Holland-Moritz, Anita, Manner, Helen  and Yee,Roger, “Bertrand Goldberg”, in Perspecta, Vol. 13/14 (1971), pp. 316-327 

Miller, Ross, Chicago Architecture after Mies in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Winter, 1979), pp. 271-289

Posted
19.Nov.2020 67 views
Author
Fabrizio Gallanti Fabrizio Gallanti

Fabrizio Gallanti is a curator and architect with experience in architectural design, education, publications and exhibitions. He is the director of arc en rêve – centre d’architecture, in Bordeaux. He holds a PhD in architectural design from the Politecnico di Torino (2001) and a M.Arch from the University of Genoa (1995). He was the first Senior Mellon Fellow at Princeton University in 2014. Since 2014 he is a visiting professor at the Architectural Association, London within the Master in History and Critical Thinking. In 2003, together with Francisca Insulza, Gallanti founded the Montréal-based architectural research studio FIG Projects (2003-present), which curated international exhibitions, such as “The World in our Eyes” for the 2016 Lisbon Architecture Triennale and edited journals such as Harvard Design Magazine “No Sweat’ in 2018.

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