Bertrand Goldberg: humanist/inventor . . . or not

Health Sciences Center, Stony Brook NY, ca. 1974 (AIC)

Because it ran from late 2011 to early 2012, the great big Bertrand Goldberg exhibit at the Art institute of Chicago will be featured in both years’ end-of-the-year lists of wow events in architecture.  When they viewed the show, MoT‘s curatorial critics and exhibition mavens were all inspired by several wow moments: Wow, he really, really did love concrete like we expected.  Wow, they exhibit styrofoam models that we wouldn’t let our students put on public display in a design jury!  Wow, just how many acres of exhibition space have they dedicated to this show?  Wow, they say he was a humanist?  Wow indeed.

First, a disclosure, and a moment of self-awareness.  In terms of taste, Goldberg’s hulking cans of concrete are not to MoT‘s.  But we can set that aside, and certainly do so quite often when attending to such museum events.  We’re teachable. We’re ready to appreciate something about an architect we didn’t think we cared about.  It happens.  Unfortunately, this exhibit didn’t do the trick for us & Bertrand.

The sheer scale was overwhelming.  Hugely gigantic, highly repetitive, and of mixed quality that diminished the overall punch of what really good and interesting projects were included.  What we found most interesting, and inspiring, were those vignettes that sort of bookend the big massive institutional projects that Goldberg is known for.  On the one hand, there is the early work that showed his development: a keen portrait of an early Modernist, intentionally making himself so by enrolling in the Bauhaus.  That could have been an exhibit all on its own (especially to find out what in the world someone named Goldberg was doing in Germany in 1932-34).  Unfortunately this early work, with its fascinating implications, was squirreled away in the back as a prize for those who showed enough endurance to make it through miles of mid-century concrete stuff.  We found the earlier work to be lively, unique, interesting; it lived up to the exhibition’s name, “Architecture of Invention:” indeed, here we see the Invention of the Architect; that’s both interesting and enlightening.

Marina City Theatre, roof and partial concrete frame development (1961-2, AIC)

Another strong point of the exhibition was the use of artifacts, including study models and construction diagrams, that are rarely included in exhibits that typically privilege the building as fait accompli.  The models might have been edited: one model that shows the process is interesting; dozens of teetering styrofoam blobs suggests shoddy work.  The construction drawings were a revelation: big, precise, sparse.  They reminded us how architects used to really know how to draw.  We enjoyed the baffled expressions of architecture majors in the galleries trying to figure out how to do that without a computer almost as much as the drawings themselves.

Beyond those points, the exhibition left us cold, and tired, confused.  It must have been early in the planning process that someone got the cute idea to make the gallery spaces take the form of the apartment wedges in Marina City.  But no one stopped later to say um, are we sure about this? they’re kind of small, cramped, awkward. . . ?  The wedges did not accommodate the exhibition themes very well, so ideas spilled from one room to the next, failing to use the physical space to enhance the scholarly ideas that were presented and that formed the framework for the exhibition.

And then, there are the ideas themselves.  We hold the old-fashioned belief that if a title suggests an idea, the idea should be pursued through the book, poem, exhibition, whatever–and ideally supported.  Not the case here.  The notion of “invention” was addressed here and there; maybe we are meant to just understand that Goldberg invented a lot of stuff with his work.  Problem is, we’ve seen a lot of this before.  Corbusian planning, Dymaxion housing, Brutalism.  Rather than take the view that the only aspect of architecture that is worth praising is utter invention, the exhibition would have been enhanced by making comparisons and links between Goldberg and other twentieth-century designers–or even earlier ones.  That would have been instructive and knit him into the broader developments of the century from which he is so often excluded in favor of more famous folks like Mies, Corb and Kahn.  Ignoring these connections just smacks of a desire to make him more ‘inventive’ than he was, and push that modernist value of invention which really is not as engaging as innovation within professional, historical and social contexts.  (And worse yet, it rings of that sad “hey me too!” attitude that is a major sickness across Chicago.)  Goldberg himself made interesting remarks about how Marina City was like, and was not like, projects by Corbusier and the traditional way of building cities.  People working with other people’s ideas: interesting.  People living in creative bubbles: not interesting.

Same goes for people who study in a bubble: you miss some interesting points of comparison.  The exhibition catalogue describes Goldberg’s hospital planning as being based on a “highly specialized ‘geo-centric’ or ‘nuclear’ model for the rooms. . . . At the most basic level, his geocentric ideal began with planning around a focal point or epicenter corresponding to a centralized area of activity or purpose.” (p. 132).  No, actually, at the most basic level, he designed a circle with a nurse station at the center point ringed by egg-shaped patient rooms and stuck the mechanical stuff into the leftover, weirdly shaped bits.  This was indeed an astonishingly contemporary idea, once upon a time, in the eighteenth century (probably earlier).

A final irritation is its use of the word “humanist” without a definition clarifying that Goldberg’s “humanism” (for there must be such a thing from which “humanist” may derive) is not related to any established definition (among the possibilities: the study of the Humanities, Greek and Latin antiquities, the Renaissance interest in those pursuits, an interest in worldly interests at the expense of the spiritual, a theological understanding of Christ’s human nature).  Of these, maybe we could assume that Goldberg’s “humanism” is related to a big general interest in humans–but one assumes (sometimes to our detriment, we know) such would be at the center of architectural design.  We were surprised to see this term at all, since we don’t understand the historical or social nature of “humanism” manifest in mega-scaled brutalist concrete that have no relationship to their extant city grids and cut off natural resources (like rivers) with a lengthy wall of building.  Goldberg’s exact meaning was not pursued in the exhibition, but is included in a chapter in the catalogue: Goldberg used the word “humanistic” to distinguish the occupied areas from “bulk” spaces in a report dated April 1965.  This distinction between “humanistic” and “bulk” spaces is a much less catchy version of an old idea; it was not even new when Kahn started talking about “servant” and “served” spaces, which he must have done sometime around 1953 when he was working on the Yale Art Gallery.  Ignoring that heritage, and its centuries of development, doesn’t make your guy sound like more of a genius, it just makes it sound like more modernist propaganda–or just scholarship that needed another footnote or two, or perhaps a better editor, which might have made this exhibition as enlightening as it was expansive.

River City I: pedestrian park level plan (ca. 1974, AIC)

All images from the Art Institute: click for link Stony Brook, Marina City and River City

Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention [exhibition] at the Art Institute of Chicago

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