Here’s Why Marina City Is Now Officially a Landmark

“Beloved,” “Pioneering,” and “Iconic” are all words often used to describe Marina City.  Today you can add another: “Landmark.”

Marina City - Chicago, Illinois - October, 2004 - 002aAs a responsible publication that often writes about actual, official, designated landmarks, we don’t casually throw the word “landmark” around, like the way some Chicago web sites fill your e-mail box with “news alerts” that are just speculation about how cool some bar might be or to let you know that Random Tween Sensation has added Chicago to her tour list.  Words mean things.  And “landmark” didn’t come to Marina City easily.

The official landmark designation came after months of research, paperwork, and public hearings.  While to an outsider, it would seem like a great thing to have your building named a landmark, it does bring with it certain baggage — like restrictions on what you can do with the building.  It’s like having a condominium association made up city bureaucrats who don’t even live in your building.

But all that is water under the bridge now, and people can finally refer to the corn cob pipes by the adjective most people already assumed they had: landmark.

We sorted through the whereases in the municipal ordinance that was passed on Wednesday, and here are the big reasons Chicago officially loves Marina City:

  • Marina City is an icon of Chicago urban planning. This “city within a city” was the first of its kind to layer residential, commercial, and entertainment uses into a dense high rise complex in the center city
  • Marina City was the most ambitious and forward-thinking post-war urban renewal project in Chicago in an era defined by ambitious urban renewal projects
  • Marina City - Chicago, Illinois - October, 2011 - 003a 2Bertrand Goldberg’s comprehensive vision for Marina City introduced new ideas about form and structure and novel solutions for living and working in an urban environment. Although Marina City remained an anomaly for decades, its success as a dense high-rise residential development anticipated the later transformation of downtown Chicago from a nIne-to-five business district to a thriving and bustling residential and commercial community. The development’s use of the Chicago River as an amenity was also years ahead of its time.
  • At the time of its construction, Marina City was the most ambitious and innovative real estate development in the city. The project was the first planned development project in Chicago, and the first and largest federally-insured downtown housing project in the country
  • Marina City was the brainchild of William Lane McFetrldge, president of the Building Service Employees International Union, and real estate developer Charles Swibel. McFetridge was one of the most influential labor leaders in the Midwest after World War II, and Swibel later rose to become head of the Chicago Housing Authority. Their idea to invest union funds into middle-income housing as a way to revitalize urban centers and create more jobs for members was a significant departure from other union-funded housing projects in the country, which were built to provide low-cost housing for members.
  • The residential towers, theater building, and office tower within the Marina City complex are all excellent and varied examples of the Expressionist style, a stylistic reaction against the rigidities of the International Style within the context of the modern movement in architecture during the second half of the twentieth century
  • Marina City marks the first built example of Bertrand Goldberg’s use of the cylindrical form, which would become a hallmark of many of his subsequent designs. Goldberg’s design for the residential towers, which featured the repeated use of curving, petal-like shapes around a central cylindrical core, was unlike any design ever built in Chicago, and the buildings remain among the most distinctive structures in the city.
  • In his design for Marina City, Bertrand Goldberg pioneered the use of concrete in high-rise construction. Goldberg had attempted to create a cylindrical design using steel framing before Marina City, and was disappointed in the limitations of the material. Using concrete allowed for a more efficient and cost-effective construction of the desired form. When they were completed, the residential towers at Marina City were the tallest reinforced concrete structures in the world.
  • Marina City showcases Goldberg’s ability to create evocative large-scale architecture that also addressed the constraints of the site and budget, the functions of each component of the development, and the needs of the people who would live and work in the complex. The cylindrical shape of the residential towers was visually striking, but it also allowed for the highest ratio of floor area to exterior skin, reducing wind loads and stresses on the building, and shortening the length of supply and return runs for the utilities. The petal-shaped plans of the apartments were designed to maximize a feeling of expanding space within very modest square footage. The rounded shape and lead sheathing of the theater building were used to improve the acoustics of the interior, all while creating a form that is as distinctive as that of the towers.
  • The form, materials and siting of the individual buildings at Marina City were carefully designed so that the office, residential, entertainment and parking functions work together effectively as a whole
  • Bertrand Goldberg, the designer of Marina City, is a significant architect in the history of Chicago architecture, combining both technical brilliance and humanistic values in ways exemplified by his architectural designs. Marina City was Goldberg’s first large-scale commission, and brought international attention to his firm.
  • Bertrand Goldberg possessed an exceptional understanding of materials and new building and design technologies, but also believed that these physical aspects of architecture must serve humanity; he was also an urbanist, but one who often found inspiration from structures found in nature. The fusion of these qualities led to Goldberg’s highly individual buildings found in Chicago and across the nation, and is most completely exemplified In the Marina City complex.
  • Bertrand Goldberg was one of the few Americans who studied at the Bauhaus, an influential avant-garde art and design school in Weimar-era Germany that flourished between the two world wars. Goldberg credited his time at the Bauhaus for his interest in the human and social aspects of design and his interest in mass-produced and prefabricated structures.
  • In 1966, Bertrand Goldberg designed the Raymond M. Hilliard Center for the Chicago Housing Authority. This complex is regarded as one of the most socially successful public housing projects in the nation, attributed largely to Goldberg’s design, which successfully balanced community amenities and the individual needs of residents.
  • Marina City was a bold response to the threat of suburbanization and disinvestment in Chicago’s downtown in the decades following World War II. The complex served as a microcosm of urban life within five interconnected yet distinct structures, all contained within a single 3-acre lot within the city’s center.
  • The structures within the Marina City complex were designed to sustain one another to create what Goldberg called the “24-hour city.” The residential towers provided the captive population needed to support the retail, office, and entertainment buildings, while these same spaces made living downtown feasible for the complex’s residents.
  • Marina City remains an iconic presence in downtown Chicago nearly 50 years after its completion. The residential towers, with their distinctive shape and rhythmic pattern of curved concrete balconies, are the focal points of the complex. The complex’s location along the Chicago River only serves to heighten the visual impact of the towers.
  • Marina City — and the residential towers, in particular — have been featured in television shows, films, advertisements, and album covers. As early as 1964, a Chicago Tribune article noted that Marina City had become a symbol for Chicago as a modern city, citing the use of its image in advertisements for everything from cars to cigarettes. This image of the buildings still resonates with many artists and designers, as well as the general public.
  • Marina City has a significant historic, community, architectural, or aesthetic interest or value, the integrity of which is preserved in light of its location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, and ability to express such historic, community, architectural, or aesthetic Interest or value.

Marina City - Chicago, Illinois - March, 2010 - 001a

Location: 300 North State Street, Near North Side

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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