We entered the floors of Chicago's Marina Towers: one of the city's most iconic buildings.
The Marina City complex, designed and built between 1959 and 1967, is one of Chicago's iconic landmarks. In addition, it is notable for two unique skyscrapers, designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg, which are part of a larger complex that is a benchmark of modern architecture. In 2016, the Chicago City Council listed Marina City as a protected building and landmark.
In 2008, architect Iker Gil, who owns an apartment in one of the towers, and Los Angeles-based Swedish photographer Andreas E. G. Larsson began documenting life. Three years later, in 2011, they mounted the exhibition Inside Marina City at the Art Institute of Chicago. Larsson's images depicted the lifestyle of the residents of this complex.
We selected some of Larsson's photographs and spoke with Iker Gil, James Pike, another resident, and Chicago architect Andrew Moddrell, who lived in the towers for a time. The three share their thoughts on the project, its residents, and the architectural significance of the buildings in Chicago.
Architecture as told by its residents
Although the building retains Bertrand Goldberg's unique architectural style, residents have transformed the interiors to their liking. "There are a total of 900 homes," explains Iker Gil of MAS Studio. "Seventy percent are one-bedroom, 20 percent are studio apartments, and 10 percent have two bedrooms. We took photographs in 40 of them and found that, in general, it is a very diverse community."
"There are students, architects, and older people who have lived here for 50 years. We intended to tell the stories of these people without revealing their identities, but we also wanted to show the architecture through the residents. We wanted to offer a glimpse of what it's like to live in this icon of modern architecture in Chicago," says Iker.
United by a bond of affection
The Marina City complex consists of five buildings: two corn cob-shaped towers (the residential part), a concert hall (formerly a theater), a hotel (once composed of offices), and the first floor - full of restaurants - which connects these four buildings with the marina (which gives its name to the complex).
"It's like a small town," notes Iker. Indeed, this was Goldberg's intention. The architect felt it was important that the workers did not have to commute from the city's outskirts to the center every day to work. Each tower has 60 floors; the first 19 form an oversized parking garage. The 20th floor is a community area where, according to Iker, young and old meet to chat and hang out. From the 21st to the 60th floor are the 900 apartments in the towers.
"Of all the tenants who came in to live when the construction of this complex ended, only five remain," Iker explains. "There are people who don't leave the tower they live in. Their daily commute consists of going up and down floors. They don't need to leave the building. It's unique: many of these residents have a strong emotional bond with this building," concludes Iker.
"I can't speak for everyone, as this is one of the most densely populated buildings in all of North America," says James Pike, one of its residents, "but most people I know don't live here just for the convenience or the location, which is one of the best in the city, but for being part of the history of an ever-evolving masterpiece.
An urban center by the river
"The rent for a one-bedroom apartment is about $1,700 a month (around 1,600 euros). It's a much lower price than usually paid in this area, as the building is old and many people prefer more modern housing," says Iker. The balcony is what he likes most about the house. "It's 15 square meters, and my wife and I spend a lot of time here, especially from May to November." Iker thinks the towers are a fantastic location. "You are in the center of the city, next to the river, and you enjoy the best architecture. I'm fascinated by the architect's intention to encourage life by the Chicago River, which was nothing more than a cesspool that was basically used for the industry until a few years ago. This building was intended for city workers to live near their jobs. The apartments are not very big, but the idea of moving the city to the river is exciting. Because of its peculiar aesthetics, many people are curious to know how the residents live there.
An architectural icon
"Marina City was born out of an urgent need to invent a new architecture that could combat the mass flight of Chicagoans to the suburbs," says Andrew Moddrell, architect and founder of Chicago-based firm PORT Urbanism, who also lived in the residential complex. "Its iconic form very strongly conveys this urgency," he asserts.
"Although many skyscrapers of equal or greater height have been built near these over the past 50 years, Marina City endures as an architectural icon, as it remains the most ambitious project."
In 1964, the Marina City towers became the tallest and most densely populated high-rise blocks within a mixed-use complex in the world. At the time, both the post-World War II housing market and interstate highway legislation were attempting to catalyze expansion into the suburbs. Thus, Goldberg had to lobby the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington D. C. to secure and recognize this unprecedented project as a viable living space.
"Its impact on Chicago is also remarkable. Shortly after this complex was conceived, the John Hancock Tower was born, which doubled its height," explains Andrew Moddrell. An optimistic building
"Marina City is pure optimism sculpted in reinforced concrete-the optimism of an entire city, optimism for humanity, optimism for the future," observes James.
"I recently took a break from Marina City to live for a season in a different architectural gem; specifically a Mies van der Rohe house on Lake Shore Drive here in Chicago," he explains. "Now that I'm back, I appreciate its generous outdoor space and that special relationship it has with the city a little more. Now, I don't want to be misunderstood: Mies's home was impressive. Maybe the ideal would be to spend the summer in a Goldberg and the winter in a Mies," he laughs.
"For me, the best thing about Marina City is that, behind that facade of architectural perfection and innovation, there are exterior columns with curved shapes that branch out to meet the structural beams in one direction and the balconies in the other. This ensemble is pure architectural poetry. So often, over a glass of wine, I try to conceive of what went into designing this octagonal shape and making this whole project happen in such an elegant way, and without 3D software!
"All of us who live here know that this is an exceptional place. You can't help but feel lucky, considering how often you see tourists stop in front of these buildings to take pictures or discuss their architecture or history. All this generates a certain camaraderie among us. Many times, I've been sitting on the balcony, and a neighbor has waved to me from the other tower and invited me to their impromptu party, or vice versa," he adds.