Bertrand Goldberg’s Temple to Futures Past

Architect Magazine Ι March 2020

In October of 2013, Luis Collado and Jose Luis de la Fuente visited Wilbur Wright College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago’s seven campuses, located in the city’s far northwest side bungalow belt. Founders of the architecture firm STL Architects, who often work on education projects, they were interested in an RFQ the school issued for a potential renovation and were stopping by to investigate. The duo 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, ultra-rationalist sense of proportion, or as lazy replications of this aspiration that end up as austere shoeboxes.

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 and situated to be an entire world of its own. Slanted from the relentless Chicago street grid, Wright College is a series of four buildings connected by elevated airlock tube hallways that plug into a stainless steel 130-foot pyramid. Collado and de la Fuente approached the building through a landscaped courtyard laid between two concrete bulkheads of a building, with round-edged pre-cast panels and small porthole-style windows that would be at home on a space station, with the connector tunnels hovering overhead. In the distance, the steel pyramid leaned away into the horizon.

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, and the gee-whiz retro sci-fi aesthetics.

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

That’s Bertrand Goldberg.  Goldberg was the last of the great Chicago Modernists, who was educated within the city’s Miesian tradition. He evolve it into fantastical new visions of city life, like his twinned Marina City mixed-use apartment towers, that were both commercially successful and daringly experimental.

“We had no idea,” said de la Fuente. Both natives of Spain, they’d been practicing architecture in Chicago for nearly 20 years but had never come across this strange coda to Goldberg’s career. In the months and years ahead, STL would be asked to re-interpret Wright College, Bertrand Goldberg’s last major work; the end of a career that hasn’t yet earned its rightful place in the pantheon of designers who made the contemporary city.

With its Alphaville-style concrete block propagation and embrace of Archigram megacities, Wright College seems like a quintessential product of the 1960s, when God-emperor architects dared to dream of new worlds and let the people in their wake decide if it was utopia or dystopia. But it’s not. Wright College is just shy of 30 years old, completed in 1992. That was when architecture was deep into the most awkward, repetitive, and commercially lucrative era of Postmodernism, when Michael Graves enlisted the Seven Dwarfs as columns to prop up the roof of a Neo-Parthenon Disney compound.

Wright College is airlock to another world; the past’s vision of the future, completed long after that vision had faded.  It’s most salient feature is how unstuck in time it seems. “You don’t know where to place it. It’s kind of like mature 60s, done in the 80s and early 90s,” says Geoffrey Goldberg, Bertrand Goldberg’s son, who worked on the project extensively as a young architect.

Part of this unstuck-ness results from the technology Bertrand Goldberg was chasing at the time. The college has a mid-century, wide-eyed technological optimism, arrayed toward what the ubiquity of the personal computer could do in a higher education setting. Goldberg knew he was designing for a moving target during the mid-80s, a transitional phase between room-sized computers explicable only to select order of white-button-down-collared-and-horn-rimmed-glasses techno-monks that surveyed miles of magnetic tape, and the ephemeral, wireless omnipresence of today. In between are the desktop computers that Wright College’s signature feature, its steel pyramid, is designed around. And this oddball’s disjunction with time and aesthetics offers lessons on how evolutions of information technology are changing perceptions of education and public space.

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, who was a strong early influence, and completed a series of single-family homes in the minimalist Miesian vein.

Goldberg’s early career was marked by quirky one-offs; rapidly deployable architecture for perilous needs (a mobile penicillin lab and a delousing unit) and trivial desires (an ice cream stand that could be erected and collapsed via single mast.) He worked with the modular architecture specialists Keck and Keck, and you can see elements of this in his work, though Goldberg’s buildings maintain a much more ular, organic sense of replication.

A precursor to Wright College was Goldberg’s SUNY Stony Brook Health Sciences Center, a medical school and teaching hospital. Consisting of three towers placed on a rectilinear mat connected via skyways, it similarly offers a grounded campus center point, with distinct, superstructure masses emerging from it. At his firm’s peak in the 1970s, he employed more than 100 people, with satellite offices in Boston and Palo Alto. Goldberg died in 1997.

He was true believer in urbanism that never wavered during the depths of the urban crisis that gripped cities in the middle of the 20th century. To combat the government-subsidized flight to the suburbs, he proposed the “new town in town,” high-rise superstructure buildings within established urban area that could provide all amenities and activities at easily at hand. The sense of hermetic self-containment here could be credibly accused of being anti-urban, but Goldberg applied this model to the entire social-economic spectrum, from low-income apartments at the Hillard Homes, to his luxury Astor Tower, and middle-income Marina City, which perfected the mixed-use apartment tower in an unmistakably iconic form. In these, the walls between rooms look like the walls of a plant cell; protozoic spirals and squiggles abound in his built and unbuilt work. It’s often a sublime meeting place between uncompromising and asymmetrical concrete Brutalism and the delicate order of the natural world.

One of the few books written about Goldberg, Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention (published to accompany a 2011 Art Institute of Chicago retrospective) unfurls a lineage of influences on him and emanating from him. There’s the Bauhaus, Corbusier, Mies, Archigram, the Japanese Metabolists, Bruce Goff, Eero Saarinen, and Chicago’s own Jeanne Gang. (The resemblance of her Aqua Tower, perhaps the best American mixed-use apartment high-rise of its generation, to the biomorphic corncob towers at Marina City is unmistakable.)

Many of these influences are impossible to ignore at Wright College. The main entrance to the steel pyramid which houses its library 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 Gaudi, or maybe even HR Geiger with the right sort of lighting. At the Art Institute of Chicago’s architecture and design archives, a cut-away drawing of the school renders it as a splayed-open space ark. At first glance, it’s an imposing, even pharaonic, temple to the now-prosaic subject Goldberg’s curiosity: the personal desktop 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. And the desktop computer’s immobility hints at the architectural solution Goldberg was after.

And as outdated as this approach is now, Goldberg’s tenure as a futurist on architecture and technology featured few embarrassing misfires. For his River City apartments, he envisioned a “two-way television” videoconferencing system. Goldberg told the Art Institute of Chicago’s architects’ oral history archive that, “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,” predating Silicon Valley’s insistence that learning to code is the highest form of self-expression known to humankind. Faculty saw computers as rivals, and Goldberg wanted to break down that division.  Most presciently, Goldberg 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, in the late 80s…”

Bertrand Goldberg 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.

His firm began working on Wright College in 1986, around the time Geoffrey Goldberg had returned to Chicago from the East Coast, after finishing graduate school at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and a stint working for IM Pei in New York. The entire office worked on the school’s design for three years from 1987-90.

Given the City Colleges stock of strict Modernist boxes, the Chicago Public Buildings Commission told Goldberg, “We don’t want a round building.” And 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. Spread across more than 20 acres and canted from Chicago’s grid, Goldberg’s plan is given rectilinear edges. “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’ centerpiece pyramid—called the Learning Resource Center (LRC)—is the main expression of Goldberg’s geometric compromise and grand ambition. In addition to the library, it contains faculty offices, and computer labs arranged in a variety of plans to encourage socialization alongside computer-aided learning.  The LRC is connected on its second and third level to two classroom buildings clad in repetitive pre-cast concrete panels via the airlock tunnels. Completely opaque and pleasingly scale-less from the inside, their muted up-lighting reflects off of fine-grained tile and a military-green ceiling. They’re every bit as otherworldly as the library pyramid. A fourth building not connected via tunnels contains an auditorium, gym, and swimming pool. At ground level, all four buildings are connected by the Campus Center, a small circulation hub that shows off the different materiality of the LRC and concrete blocks through glass walls.

Pedagogically, “all of the learning activities were tied back into the learning center,” says Geoffrey Goldberg. The LRC is the “cheese in the mousetrap.”

Computers and spaces for them were sprinkled throughout the LRC in large groupings and small, not limited to any specific area or program. This sense of dispersion is 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 its fourth-floor atrium reading room. From the ground looking up, it’s a crystalline web of stairs, rendered in burly concrete.

And 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 (especially at Wright College) 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. There’s a strange feeling in this facility that there’s an attention paid to the individual.” That is, strange for its apparent era. In the 60s, when Wright’s ideological frame was set, architects heedlessly clear-cut miles of Brazilian wilderness to build the new, perfectly abstract, capital of Brasilia, and encircled the most vulnerable parts of each American city center in a ring of freeways. It wasn’t a great time for listening to the little people.

“You can find small spaces tucked here and there in the learning center,” says Geoffrey Goldberg.  “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.”

There are the small faculty offices, six to a corridor, that end at tall, narrow window strips that staff have decorated with plants and seating; lush terrariums amid the grey 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.

The LRC’s approachability also seems strange because it exists within a steel temple fetishistically dedicated to a piece of technology that’s lost its modernity-defining salience. But spend some time there, and you’ll learn that it’s about as un-pharaonic as you can get for a pyramid. It’s low roof angle slopes away from you quickly, and the top floor reading room atrium is modest in proportion. The entire campus is set within a lushly forested Alfred Caldwell landscape, and in perspective, the LRC rarely rises over the treetops as you look up. It stubbornly resists monumental photography. You have to scramble on top of small ridge along Montrose Ave. to get full a profile; there’s no “postcard shot” says Geoffrey Goldberg. “It’s almost shy.” In the early stages of its design, any time more strident versions of the LRC would arise in the office, Bertrand would push them aside. It’s pyramid peak was originally flat, though it’s not anymore, and students used to scale its 130 feet to stand on top of it.  It’s warmer and more welcoming than it seems to have any right to be, made ever more so because of its blatantly outdated aesthetics and forms. It’s just too much of a misfit to ever be threatening.

Collado, of STL, says Wright College is not Bertrand Goldberg’s best work. But that doesn’t mean much when his best work is Marina City, the building that perfected the mixed-use apartment tower in an era where faith in the city was at an all-time low. Wright College does has very real weaknesses. There is functionally no primary front door, which blurs and diffuses its dramatic entry sequence. It’s not easy to navigate, and its relentless, micromanaging sense of control weeds out any aura of spontaneity.

And though the campus is like nowhere else, within this strange realm, Goldberg’s enforced uniformity and granular control over every element means it’s hard to locate oneself exactly in space. After a tour of the building, facilities manager and Chief Engineer Mike Dompke, who has worked at the building nearly since its opening, remembers perusing Wright College’s photography club photos 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 for their research on the school. They took photos of campus and asked students where each was taken. “Overwhelmingly, people did not know where it was,” Collado says.

From its custom-designed window fixtures, hamster tube skywalks, and the axial courtyards that place students in a bowling alley of mid-century Modernist concrete, it’s a fantastical, fully-formed world, but not one open to interpretation. “This obsession with control is [Goldberg’s] worst enemy,” says Collado.

There are fewer and fewer places for spontaneous, social interaction as one scales up from the small groups the LRC accommodates well. There are places for people, but the formality of the library setting means it’s most attuned to hushed whispers across a desk, not boisterous pin-ups across a hall. (Architecture studios are taught at Wright College.) And this sense of intimacy is at odds with contemporary ideas on learning space. “[Wright College] deserves some credit for being a case study on the evolution of how our society approaches education,” says Collado.

If the operative metaphor at Wright College is campus-as-city, then Collado and de la Fuente detect a lack of a public realm at the school, the campus equivalent of parks, plazas, and sidewalks, to be made ubiquitous and introduced in more fine-grained patterns. This isn’t how the previous generation of designers thought of education facilities or any sort of space. From the strict segregation of greenfield residential suburbs from the retail and commercial centers that served them, to Goldberg’s hyper-rational machine for education at Wright College, work, play, and anything in between didn’t mix. “The celebration of community and learning are two separate things in the 60s and the 70s,” says Collado.

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

The idea of free-floating places of collaboration that exist between work and leisure (yet are united by the omnipresence of media screens) has been widely successful, and an entire class of people are entering the workforce that will likely spent their entire careers–and more–in them. This is exemplified by the co-working space with “huddle rooms,” “phone booths,” a craft beer stocked bar, and an endless hunger for spatial arrangements that prize the mythical “spontaneous interaction” that will break open the world of smart toenail clipper app testing. This shared material and spatial sensibility has been exported to hospitality design, residential design, cultural institutions, and of course, education. The university library’s terraced roof deck, the apartment tower with three separate amenity floors catering to work-at-home entrepreneurs who need a space to bring clients in for meetings, the museum learning lab with interactive exhibits synched with what’s on the walls, and any space with brightly colored loungey furniture where you’d feel equally comfortable emailing your boss or watching YouTube videos are all contemporary expressions of what STL calls “social infrastructure.”

This new paradigm has evolved alongside and because of the Internet, which allows its untethered access to information. And because of this option, when you plop down a bunch of desktops 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 STL Architects’ plans for Wright College are to provide the built context for this social network.

To address this need and solve an overall space crunch at the school, the City College’s largest with 18,000 students, STL spent year and a half producing five volumes of research, much as Goldberg did in his day.  Their plan 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 central hub that allows students to enter each one without walking through a round-about circular path at ground level. Glass encases Wright College’s distinctive pre-cast 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 farmer’s 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.” This revision gives the school a front entrance focal point, encourages a more interactive and porous relationship with surrounding neighbors, and offers up servings of lightly programmed social space.

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. Since there is currently no money or mandate to build this re-envisioning, Wright College will likely remain unmoored from its age for the foreseeable future.

And though the college’s strident mid-century forms have entranced the design community, this sort of Brutalism never gained the widespread trust of the broader public. Even in Chicago, Goldberg’s work hasn’t always been respected. In 2013, Northwestern University demolished his concrete quatrefoil Prentice Women’s Hospital, in favor of a new medical center. STL realizes that any whiff of obsolescence wafting toward buildings with stigmatized or odd aesthetics can quickly be leveraged into demolition permits. Adapting the building, counterintuitively, becomes a strategy for preservation.

Bertrand 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 (which transfixes Chicagoans) kept him outside of the New York-centric design media axis. Similarly, even though it’s as public as nearly any Goldberg building, Wright College is overlooked in part because of its remoteness; far from the cluster of architecture at Chicago’s center that has largely defined the contemporary metropolis the world over. It was already something of a nostalgia piece when it was new, and its utopian zeal for an era it was never actually present for feels a bit forced, aging it further.

And there’s a similar utopian impulse to view its lack of under-programmed hang-out space favorably, because when these sorts of places exist today, they’re most often stuffed with commercial uses, becoming inherently exclusionary. We’re often sold consumerism in the place of populism or community, by buildings that insist (with market-tested forecasting for shopping and cuisine) that they’re on our side because they offer the kind of snacks we enjoy.

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.” And 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.

As a loose, conceptual plan on a computer screen, STL’s scheme is appropriate and responsible. It respects Goldberg’s intent, and provides new spaces that recognize how students learn today, and provides the suite of amenities they expect to find. But it’s hard to shake the suspicion that Wright College would lose something we know how to replicate less and less if it’s forced to conform, for the first time in its history, to its own era.