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Marina City

2011 January 21
by Caroline Nye Stevens

Marina City Towers

Photo borrowed from Marina Management website

300 N. State St.

When Marina City was first built between 1960 and 1967 its towers loomed over the surrounding historic buildings and parking lots on either side of the Chicago River. Today glitzy new skyscrapers frame the complex, yet the Marina Towers still remain as two of Chicago’s greatest icons, and likely will for time to come.

When built, the towers were both the tallest concrete structures and tallest residential towers in the world. More importantly, they were an experiment in a new urban philosophy: building a city within a city. Chicago had experienced a long period of suburban flight, which left an abandoned and deteriorating downtown. Marina City was part of an effort to reintroduce downtown Chicago as an attractive place to live. Marina City is actually a complex of five structures: two residential towers (60 stories each, with the first 18 stories reserved for parking), an office building (10 stories), and a theater building all standing upon a large commercial platform. Every amenity imaginable could be found within – such as a swimming pool, gym, ice skating rink, bank, barbershop and even a grocery store. And of course there’s still the ever-popular marina – hence the name. The first of its kind, it truly was a city within a city.

Marina City, Hedrich Blessing Photographers

Marina City, Hedrich Blessing Photographers

An organization especially invested in the city’s revival – the Janitor’s Union (more formally called the Building Service Employees International Union) – financed the building of Marina City. When completed, Marina City would provide work for 100 janitors within the complex, and a downtown revival would promise work for many more still. It wasn’t uncommon at the time for unions to invest health, welfare, and pension funds in low-cost housing. The Janitor’s Union followed suit. Charles (Chuck) Swibel, a realtor and later chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority, proposed the idea to the union and was integral to pushing the plan to fruition. A staunch supporter of Mayor Richard J. Daley and his plans for downtown revitalization, Swibel was especially enthusiastic about the project. But it was architect Bertrand Goldberg who was responsible for Marina City’s design and instant emergence as a Chicago icon.

Bertrand Goldberg (1913-1997) was born and raised in Chicago. After studying architecture at Harvard, in 1932 at the young age of 19 he left for Germany to study at the Bauhaus – the greatest school of modernist art, architecture and design of its day. While there he apprenticed under Mies van der Rohe and his partner Lily Reich. He only attended the Bauhaus for one year before it was closed by the Nazi regime. He eventually followed Mies back to the Armour Institute of Technology (today IIT) where he was the director of their architecture program. Despite his admiration for Mies, he never adopted the right angle that was so central to his mentor’s design philosophy. Instead Goldberg centered his attention on the circle.

Marina CityThe towers were the first circular apartment buildings in history. And Goldberg’s choice in the circle was based on more than just aesthetics. The circle gave the highest ratio of usable floor space to exterior skin. And to Goldberg the circle offered still something more. He once said,  “(I) wanted to get people out of boxes, which are really psychological slums . . . those long hallways with scores of doors opening anonymously are inhuman. Each person should retain his relation to the core. It should be the relation of the branch to the tree, rather than that of the cell to the honeycomb.”

The structure of the towers is in fact like a tree. All of the buildings’ mechanicals are located in the cores of each tower (or the “tremendous tree trunk(s)” as Goldberg called them). On every floor 16 reinforced concrete beams radiate out almost 40ft from the core – just like branches – to 16 exterior columns. And similar to a tree, the structure of the towers is completely exposed and celebrated.

"Corny But . . ." Chicago Daily News

"Corny But . . ." Chicago Daily News Image

In Chicago the Marina Towers are rarely related to trees, though they are often compared lovingly to corncobs – making the towers more than just icons, but great monuments to the Midwestern fields surrounding this metropolis.


All of the information for this article came from reading Igor Marjanovic and Katerina Ruedi Ray’s fantastic new book entitled, “Marina City: Bertrand Goldberg’s Urban Vision.” Their book goes into far more detail than this post, covering everything from the politics surrounding Marina City’s construction to the Towers portrayal in contemporary culture . . . and goes highly recommended.

And to learn more about Bertrand Goldberg explore this website devoted entirely to him! One of his Chicago buildings, the Prentice Women’s Hospital, is currently threatened with destruction. Follow along the efforts to save this building and be sure to become a fan of Save Prentice on facebook.

Marina City Online is the number one resource for online information on Marina City – updated daily. For Marina City news, fun facts and even real estate listings visit the Marina City Online website.

And finally the construction of the Marina Towers was an impressive feat. It was also accomplished at high-speeds: the towers were built at a speed of one floor per day on alternating towers. Watch this fun old video showing the construction of Marina City produced by the Portland Cement Association of Skokie: “This is Marina City (Part 1)” . . .

Liked that? Watch “This is Marina City (Part 2)!”

Marina City is full of stories. Do you have any you would like to share?

10 Responses
  1. January 21, 2011

    This is a great and informative article. I see Marina City everyday and never realized that they resembled corn cobs. I really enjoyed reading this and watching the movie.

  2. January 21, 2011

    Hello. Nice article. I just wanted to say that a much better web resource on Marina City would probably be my site, We have a 73,000 word history, which was the first comprehensive history on Marina City published anywhere, and thousands of images. MCO was responsible for restoring the “This is Marina City” film and uploading web-sized videos to YouTube. Plus current events, listings, etc.

    -Steven Dahlman, Editor,

    • Caroline Nye permalink*
      January 22, 2011

      Your site is definitely worth a visit, and you did a fantastic job on the “This is Marina City” film. Thanks for introducing yourself!

  3. Rick Lightburn permalink
    January 21, 2011

    I’ve often wondered about the relationship between Goldberg and Buckminster Fuller. Fuller lectured at the Institute of Design when Goldberg was a student at IIT (I think), and some of Fuller’s Dymaxion House designs look very much like Goldberg’s designs. But no one has ever mentioned one in the context of the other. H’m.

    • Caroline Nye permalink*
      January 21, 2011

      The same thought passed through my head while reading Goldberg’s Urban Vision. Sounds like a good thesis topic! Get to work Rick!

  4. Nye S. permalink
    January 22, 2011

    I love the corny picture. How could you come up with such an artifact? Good article!

  5. January 22, 2011

    The timing of seeing this blog post is amazing. I was just at a private party last night at Marina City where the Marina City property manager (and former architect) did a wonderful power point presentation on the history and creation of Marina City.

    Truly an icon.

  6. Bill Savage permalink
    January 24, 2011

    I had a couple of friends who lived in one of the studio apartments; the bathroom and entryway (being near the trunk of the tree) were awkwardly angular. And as the new Quaker Oats high rise was rising to the west over on Clark Street, they had some . . . issues . . . regarding privacy. Accustomed to nothing as tall as them west of them, they didn’t draw their curtains much. Only after going for a drink at the nearby dive bar, Rossi’s, and overhearing some of the ironworkers from the new building discussing details of their love life with some relish did they realize they’d been putting on a show. The perils of urban high rise living.

  7. bob permalink
    February 3, 2011

    “Flophouse Charley” Swibel was a slumlord; his appointment as head of the CHA was a prime example of the corruption in Chicago during the Daley (Senior) days; a 1982 federal study found that under Swibel the CHA was one of the worst managed public housing authorities in the country.

    Swibel sold “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak (operating under a hidden land trust, to keep the names a secret) 50 Marina City condos in June 1980 for $2.5 million, though they were worth perhaps twice that amount; that was right after Fast Eddie rammed through a Chicago ordinance allowing Swibel to quickly convert the building to condos (reference: Mike Royko’s Sun Times column of March 26, 1982).

    Thus, although Marina City is a great building in the tradition of innovative Chicago architecture, it also is participates in the far less pleasant Chicago tradition of political corruption.

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