Goldberg Variation

River City, Chicago

River City, Chicago

Clearly visible from the Sears/Willis Tower, River City (1986) – despite its incomplete form – is Bertrand Goldberg’s complement to Marina City, a free-standing residential complex.  Instead of the intended height of seventy-two storeys, the existing building is only seventeen storeys high, incorporating a boat-dock giving direct access to the Chicago River.

Its S-shape is reflected in the spinal ten-storey atrium, the River Road, which runs through the building, so that the wedge-shaped apartments alternatively face out to the river or inwards to the atrium.  Originally the building was intended to extend a further 400 metres towards Roosevelt Road.

Bertrand Goldberg was a Chicago-born Bauhaus student and graduate of the Armour Institute.  He regarded Mies van der Rohe as his mentor, until he became repelled by the mechanical repetitiveness of modernist design.

Goldberg asserted a more humane design-language by his rejection of right-angles, spectacularly apparent in his Chicago housing-projects.

The fragment of River City that exists lacks the impact of the intended design.  Marina City is 65 storeys high;  the six clusters of “triad” towers at River City would have been 72 storeys, linked by bridges at intervals of eighteen floors.

Mies is regarded as an aesthetic hero by a whole generation.  The tall rectangular boxes that he and his followers erected in cities across the world look fine, but Goldberg’s towers feel like places to live in.

There’s an account of Goldberg and his life’s work at

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

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