Zach Mortice

In October 2013, Luis Collado and Jose Luis de la Fuente visited Wilbur Wright College, one of the seven campuses of the City Colleges of Chicago, located in the far northwest side bungalow belt. Founders of the firm STL Architects, which often works on education projects, Collado and de la Fuente were interested in an RFQ the school had issued for a potential renovation. They knew little for certain about Wright College, but they knew what to expect. Many of the city colleges are ultra-rational Modernist boxes, deployed either with an exacting sense of proportion or as lazy replications with all the charm of an austere shoebox.

But that’s not what they found. “The moment we stepped on campus, we looked at each other, and we said, ‘This is somebody’s,’ ” says de la Fuente. What they saw was a community college designed to be an entire world of its own. Slanted from the relentless Chicago street grid, Wright College is a series of four buildings with elevated tube walkways that plug into a stainless steel 130-foot-tall pyramid. Collado and de la Fuente approached the pyramid through a landscaped courtyard, the surrounding buildings sporting round-edged precast panels and small porthole-style windows that would be at home on a space station.

Zach Mortice

As they got closer, they reached for their phones and started Googling. Who designed this? Then it all fell into place: the fearless use of concrete, the building-as-city superstructure, the gee-whiz retro sci-fi aesthetics.

“Shit, man. Is this Goldberg?” asked Collado.

That’s Bertrand Goldberg, the last of the great Chicago Modernists. Collado and de la Fuente, both Spanish natives, had been practicing architecture in Chicago for nearly 20 years, but they had never come across this strange coda to the architect’s career. “We had no idea,” says de la Fuente.

With its Alphaville-style concrete block propagation and embrace of Archigram megacities, Wright College seems like a quintessential product of the 1960s. But it’s not. The project is just shy of 30 years old, completed in 1992, five years before Goldberg’s death. It is an air lock to another world; the past’s vision of the future, completed long after that vision had faded. Its most salient feature is how unstuck in time it seems. “You don’t know where to place it. It’s kind of like mature 1960s, done in the ’80s and early ’90s,” says Geoffrey Goldberg, Bertrand Goldberg’s son, who worked on the project as a young architect.

Zach Mortice
Zach Mortice

The college has a wide-eyed technological optimism, inspired by its coming of age when the sudden ubiquity of the personal computer was on the verge of transforming higher education. Today, Wright College offers lessons on how the evolution of information technology is changing the design of education and public spaces. STL was charged with reinterpreting this oddball project, which was designed by an architect who hasn’t yet earned his rightful place in the pantheon of designers who made the contemporary city.

A True Believer
Unlike Mies, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Daniel Burnham, Bertrand Goldberg was a Chicago original, born and raised in the city, in Hyde Park. He studied at the Cambridge School of Landscape Architecture (later absorbed into Harvard), and at the Bauhaus and Illinois Institute of Technology. He worked briefly for Mies and completed a series of single-family homes in the minimalist Miesian vein.

A true believer in urbanism, Goldberg never wavered during the depths of the urban crisis that gripped cities in the middle of the 20th century. To combat government-subsidized flight to the suburbs, he proposed the “new town in town,” high-rise superstructure buildings within established urban areas that could provide all the necessary amenities and activities. Such hermetic self-containment could be credibly accused of being anti-urban, but Goldberg applied this model to the entire socioeconomic spectrum in Chicago, from his low-income apartments at the Hilliard Homes, to his luxury Astor Tower, to his middle-income Marina City complex, a sublime cross between uncompromising concrete Brutalism and the delicate order of the natural world.

One of the few books written about Goldberg, Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention (Art Institute of Chicago, 2011) unfurls a lineage of his influences, including the Bauhaus, Corbusier, Mies, Archigram, the Japanese Metabolists, Bruce Goff, and Eero Saarinen. Those in turn influenced by him include Tadao Ando, Hon. FAIA, and Chicago’s own Jeanne Gang, FAIA (the resemblance of her Aqua Tower to the biomorphic corncob towers at Marina City is unmistakable).

Zach Mortice
Zach Mortice

Many of these influences are impossible to ignore at Wright College. The main entrance to the steel pyramid confronts visitors with thick concrete ribs and the semblance of a sternum hoisting up the building’s second floor; an inhabitable cyborg beast that’s Stanley Kubrick by way of Gaudí, or maybe even H.R. Giger with the right sort of lighting. At first glance, it’s an imposing, even pharaonic, temple to the subject of Goldberg’s curiosity: the personal desktop computer.

A Prescient Focus on the Personal Computer
Wright College seems to be the result of grand visionary premonition, but Goldberg was never a willful napkin sketcher, and the school was the result of months of technocratic sociological research. Goldberg had been fascinated with how computers could be integrated with architecture since the 1960s, and Wright College was an opportunity to design for them at a critical juncture: the early stages of a broad consumer market.

As Goldberg prophetically told the Art Institute of Chicago’s architects’ oral history archive: “We look forward to a time when the teachers may be permitted to originate their own educational software, much as they would write a book.” Faculty saw computers as rivals, and Goldberg wanted to break down that division. But he also called the computer a “lonely device,” in need of collaborative and social context. “It’s meant for personal education, but we still have the need, it seems to me, to allow for group education, with the use of the computer,” he said. Just as presciently, the architect envisioned the emergence of cloud computing when he pushed against spending extra money to install additional fiber-optic and coaxial cable infrastructure at the school. “My father fought long and hard, saying ‘The future is in the air. It’s not in burying money in walls,’ ” says Geoffrey Goldberg. “He was correct in the long term, but at that time …”

Zach Mortice

Given the City College’s stock of Modernist boxes, the Chicago Public Buildings Commission told Goldberg, “We don’t want a round building.” Despite his past portfolio, he complied. In this way, it’s something of a return to form, toward Goldberg’s early-career Mies-influenced houses. “I think it’s rather fascinating for a very creative architect known for his forms [to work] within a constraint which is contrary, and yet still manage to do an inventive building out of that,” says Geoffrey Goldberg.

The campus’s centerpiece pyramid—called the Learning Resource Center (LRC)—is the main expression of Goldberg’s geometric compromise and grand ambition. It contains a library, faculty offices, and computer labs arranged in a variety of plans to encourage socialization and computer-aided learning. The LRC is connected via tunnels on its second and third levels to two classroom buildings clad in repetitive precast concrete panels. Completely opaque and pleasingly scaleless from the inside, the tunnels feature muted uplighting that illuminates fine-grained tile and military-green ceilings. The fourth building, not linked by tunnel, contains an auditorium, gym, and swimming pool. At ground level, all the buildings are connected by the Campus Center, a small circulation hub. Pedagogically, “all of the learning activities were tied back into the learning center,” says Geoffrey Goldberg. The LRC is the “cheese in the mousetrap.”

Zach Mortice
Zach Mortice

Computers were sprinkled throughout the LRC in groupings large and small, not limited to any specific area or program—the sense of dispersion aided by the Piranesian complexity of the library. An alternating pattern of elevated platforms at the center of the pyramid, and perimeter catwalks at its edge, brings students to the fourth-floor atrium reading room. From the ground floor looking up, it’s a crystalline web of stairs, rendered in burly concrete.

Within these layered concrete shelves of library stacks and reading desks there’s a humanist sense of intimate scale. Much of Goldberg’s planning work tended to focus on “very small-scale units of human interaction; six, eight, 10, 12 people,” says Geoffrey Goldberg. “He’s interested in smaller clusters of people. There’s a kind of individualization that runs through the work. It’s from the small pieces up. It’s not a top-down kind of thing.”

At Wright College, he says, “There’s a strange feeling in this facility that there’s an attention paid to the individual. You can find small spaces tucked here and there in the learning center. … You tend to think it’s going to be a large, grand space, but in fact it doesn’t feel that way. You find places for people to be in.”

Zach Mortice
Zach Mortice
Zach Mortice

There are the small faculty offices, six to a corridor, each office featuring a tall, narrow window strip that staff typically decorate with plants and seating—lush terrariums amid the gray concrete. There are study nooks placed under the space tube skyways, and all manner of quiet corners at the pyramid’s canted edges. The idiosyncrasy of the space encourages you to keep exploring, to find your secret place in Goldberg’s machine.

Lost in Space
Collado, of STL, acknowledges that Wright College is not Bertrand Goldberg’s best work. Functionally there is no primary front door, which blurs and diffuses the otherwise dramatic entry sequence. Goldberg’s relentless uniformity and micromanaged sense of control, meanwhile, eliminates any aura of spontaneity and makes it difficult to locate yourself in space. Facilities manager and chief engineer Mike Dompke, who has worked at the building nearly since its opening, remembers studying the photography club’s images of the school and not recognizing what he saw. “I see them, and [I say], ‘Where is that?’ I think they went somewhere else,” he says. “No, they snapped the picture right on campus.”

Collado and de la Fuente repeated a similar exercise, asking students to identify the location of campus photos. “Overwhelmingly, people did not know where it was,” Collado says. “[Goldberg’s] obsession with control is his worst enemy.”

There are few larger places for spontaneous social interaction apart from the small groups the LRC accommodates well. The formality of the library setting means it’s most attuned to hushed whispers across a desk, not boisterous pin-ups across a hall—a sense of intimacy that is at odds with contemporary ideas about learning spaces. If the operative metaphor at Wright College is campus-as-city, then Collado and de la Fuente also detect a lack of a public realm at the school, the campus equivalent of parks, plazas, and sidewalks. “The celebration of community and learning are two separate things in the 1960s and ’70s,” says Collado.

Zach Mortice
Zach Mortice

What Wright College needs, according to de la Fuente, is more “social infrastructure” designed for “the spaces in-between that don’t necessarily have a program.” In the context of education, this means the “celebration of community as a learning experience,” adds Collado. Today, “places of socialization become places of learning.”

Think of the free-floating collaborative spaces that now exist between work and leisure: co-working offices with their “huddle rooms,” “phone booths,” craft beer–stocked bars, and endless spatial arrangements that prize “spontaneous interaction.” This shared material and spatial sensibility has been exported to hospitality design, residential design, cultural institutions, and of course, education, and it has evolved alongside and because of the internet. When you plop down a bunch of desktop computers today, the subtle message is that this is not actually a place to socialize. Positioning the LRC as a knowledge hub was a good idea, say Collado and de la Fuente, but now the value is in the network, not in the hardware. So they intend to provide the built context for this social network.

STL spent a year and a half producing five volumes of research, much as Goldberg did in his day. The firm’s plan for Wright College, now 18,000 students strong, installs a two-level glass canopy over the axial courtyard between the LRC and the science classroom building. At the ground floor and in a catwalk level above, this atrium spine is lined with retail and institutional uses: coffee shop, bookstore, food pantry, student center, etc. The top level extends a single story above the classroom buildings, never challenging the primacy of the LRC, and the new link connects all four buildings in a central hub that allows students to enter each one without walking through a roundabout circular path at ground level. Glass encases Wright College’s distinctive precast concrete and stainless steel in a vitrine panopticon, allowing a new level of visual access and intimacy. And the canopy telescopes beyond the perimeter of the buildings, creating a covered quasi-public plaza, where community programming, like a farmers market, could take root. “It’s a city college. It’s not Princeton,” says Collado. “It’s a place where you want the community to come in and experience it.”

Zach Mortice
Zach Mortice

It’s a conventionally contemporary approach to education and public space. But Collado and de la Fuente say they do feel a responsibility to maintain the school’s fundamental out-of-time-ness. Somewhat mysteriously, their plan for Wright College was largely met with approval followed by silence; there’s been no follow-up to build it and no explanation why, though STL believes the issue may be funding. (Wright College did not respond to inquiries about the status.) At least for the foreseeable future, the school will remain unmoored from its age.

A Neglected Legacy
Goldberg’s work hasn’t received the attention it deserves because much of it requires a key to get into; his portfolio is thin on major public cultural institutions. Additionally, he seldom taught, and his steadfast commitment to Chicago kept him outside of the New York–centric design media axis. Similarly, Wright College has been overlooked in part because of its relative remoteness from downtown. It was already something of a nostalgia piece when it was new, and this utopian zeal for a bygone era feels a bit forced, aging it further.

But Wright College, in all of its inflexibility, insistence on control, and reverence for a very specific era of technology, has never pandered and never tried to be all things to all people. “It doesn’t pretend to be something else,” says Geoffrey Goldberg. “It’s a mature architect who knows what he’s doing late in his career. He was just doing his thing. It’s not like we had long conceptual discussions about this stuff. He carried it in his head and worked it out.” The college’s clarity of purpose came part and parcel with its outdated aesthetics. If all architecture is inherently political, then a polemic like Wright College has more integrity than a sales pitch.

Zach Mortice

As a loose, conceptual concept on a computer screen, STL’s scheme is appropriate and responsible. It respects Goldberg’s intent, and provides new spaces that cater to how students learn today, not to mention the expected suite of modern amenities. But it’s hard to shake the suspicion that Wright College would lose something if it’s forced to conform, for the first time in its history, to the present.

This essay was originally published in Midwest Architecture Journeys (Belt Publishing, 2019) and is reprinted here with permission.