Friday, 19 December 2008

Bertrand Goldberg: True Blue Bauhausler

Witold Rybczynski, perhaps the most influential architectural historian of the current generation, has observed that the loss of social idealism among the Bauhaus principals (always excepting Walter Gropius himself) is an interesting story that deserved to be told. Peter Blake, the German immigrant who became the outstanding American architectural journalist of post World War II America, deplored this loss of idealism in his memoir, “No Place Like Utopia”(1997), and considered it as the most significant moral failure of the architectural elite in our time.

But there were a few who kept the faith, principally among them, the Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg (1913-1997). He was in the last class of the Bauhaus, 1933, which the Nazis shut down (before his graduation) in a former telephone factory in Berlin. He even went on to work briefly for Mies van der Rohe’s office in Berlin. I last talked with him in April, 1995, a day no Midwesterner will ever forget—the day Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He picked me and a German friend up in his racy convertible at the Chicago Institute of Arts, and took us to his club, high in a skyscraper overlooking his chef d’ouevre, Marina Towers.

There he talked with great enthusiasm about his desire to fight suburbanization by making Center City Chicago habitable again, and how he had talked some unions into sponsoring it financially. It was the old Bauhaus idealism of over sixty years before, still burning fiercely in his heart. I had first run into him in 1977 at a Charles Benton after party for the Chicago Film Festival. (I had advised Benton for several years on which NBC-TV programs he should buy for distribution on the cultural circuit of schools and museums.) When I saw Goldberg’s ID, I joked that I was giving up teaching to become a drug dealer at Marina City (1959-1964), that being the only way I could afford on my salary to move in.

He found that corny joke amusing enough to invite me to his downtown Northwestern University Hospital the next day. He was meeting a group of out of town architects eager to look closely at his thin shell concrete construction of a Maternity Ward there—it was designed so that the babies occupied a round central space, with their mothers circling the center with their own rooms. It was inspiring. Most of them were out of town ordinaries, caught between their own limited budgets and tight deadlines and an inspiring experience with a genius.

In the two decades before his death (1997) I got in the habit of pitstopping my two Chicago heroes, Studs Terkel and Bertrand. He had me visit as many of his other architectural achievements as I could. I still remember visiting his home in the Near Northside where, walking his dogs, he feigned a campaign against his quirky neighbor, Archbishop John Cody, by having his Dobermanns piss on the ecclesiast’s lawn.

He earned his rep as an innovative designer: his first big job was to create in 1938 a series of small shops for the North Pole ice cream firm. They could be assembled, disassembled and transported easily. If Gropius only knew! “Its flat roof was supported by tension wires from a single, illuminated column rising up through the shop’s center. Glass windows and a door formed a box below the roof.”

During World War II he experimented with plywood boxcars, demountable housing for the military before and after the War. He also designed mobile vaccine laboratories for the U.S. government. And noodled around with his friend “the design scientist”, Buckminster Fuller. Goldberg was one of the few Bauhauslers who never forgot the original idealism, even though Mies had jettisoned it when he took over the school from Hannes Meyer, Gropius’s successor in 1928, canned because of his left wing activities.

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