Last month’s announcement that the City of Chicago is granting landmark status to Marina City hit me like a shock wave. Not because Bertrand Goldberg’s design isn’t worthy—quite the contrary—but because it’s so hard to believe that Marina City wasn’t already landmarked. Those double corncob spires, which date back to 1963, are as iconic as any building in Chicago. What took so long? With so many other significant buildings of the era already demolished or actively endangered, an entire generation of American architectural production seems under threat.
In the case of Marina City, Bertrand and his architect son Geoff began lobbying for landmark designation more than 25 years ago. According to a story by ARCHITECT contributor Edward Keegan, AIA, their efforts long failed to gain traction with the powers that be, and only when the 2014–15 demolition of Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital drew heated protest did Mayor Rahm Emanuel and others warm to the notion that Marina City deserves legal protection.
Prentice, it is widely known, fell victim to the expansion plans of owner Northwestern University. The City of Chicago chose not to oppose the powerful institution, effectively allowing commerce to best culture. I suspect the landmarking of Marina City may be the mayor’s way of compensating the design and preservation communities for their loss. Ah, politics.
Meanwhile, Bostonians may finally be succumbing to the Brutalist charms of their City Hall and Plaza (the former the work of Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles, the latter of I.M. Pei & Associates). As Christine Cipriani reported for ARCHITECT, traditionally, “whenever the Boston Globe runs a story touching on the design … readers’ comments add color: ‘That whole area looks like Moscow in 1980.’ ‘Dear Lord, knock it down.’ ‘No amount of tinkering can save it.’ ”
Now, Cipriani writes, “Reader’s comments are starting to sound more like these: ‘While I don’t like Brutalist architecture, it’s a style that by now has some historical value/merit. It should be preserved as an example of what was built in the past.’ ‘This building is very interesting and has the potential to be extraordinary with the right lighting, plaza activity, landscaping, signage. But like Charlie Brown’s tree, it needs some TLC!’ ”
I was fascinated to learn that City Hall’s co-designer, Michael McKinnell, FAIA, agrees there is need for TLC. At a Boston Society of Architects forum in January, he argued that “a very considerable and radical intervention” would be necessary for the hall and plaza to live up to the original, competition-winning vision of 1962. He may get his wish: Last year the city government launched Rethink City Hall!, a public process for making design changes to the site.
There’s a wonderful scene in the 1974 Roman Polanski film Chinatown, where John Huston’s creepy businessman tells Jack Nicholson’s private dick, “’Course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Personally, I don’t think Marina City or Boston City Hall and Plaza are ugly, but lots of people did, and do. Innovations can be alarming, and it can take decades to shift popular and political opinion. Sometimes preservation is just a waiting game.
This article appeared in the March 2016 issue of ARCHITECT magazine.