Chicago's Marina City Celebrates 50 Years

marina_city_15806Marina City, the landmark structure located along the Chicago River in downtown Chicago, Illinois, celebrated its 50th birthday in 2014. Marina City is a mixed-use building complex highlighted by twin, corncob-shaped residential towers constructed of exposed reinforced concrete. When completed in 1964, the twin towers were the both the tallest residential buildings and the tallest reinforced concrete structures in the world. The modern design of the towers is as unique today as when they opened.

Architect Bertrand Goldberg, a student of Mies van der Rohe, designed the Marina City complex in 1959. The construction cost was $36 million and financed primarily by unions. The unions feared the flow of people from the city to the suburbs in the 1960s would lead to a decrease of city jobs. The concept of a residential “city within a city” offers an alternative to moving to the surrounding small towns. Considering the current trend for downtown residential towers because of people moving from the suburbs and back into the city, Marina City was ahead of its time. Living and working downtown eliminates the need for daily commuting by car, an original marketing slogan for the tower.

Marina_City_4Upon completion in 1964, the two towers were the tallest reinforced concrete structures and the first buildings in the United States to be constructed with tower cranes. The general contractor was a joint venture between Brighton Construction Company, owner Thomas J. Bowler, and James McHugh Construction Company.  James McHugh Construction Co. was the same contractor to build Water Tower Place in 1976 and Trump Tower, Chicago, in 2008, both of which represented some of the tallest reinforced concrete structures at the time of their completion.

Over the years, minor fires have occurred; fortunately, Marina City has not had any serious fires. This excellent record can be attributed to the concrete construction and the “all electric” building design.

Marina City is credited with being the first urban, post-war, high-rise residential complex in the United States and is generally credited with starting the residential renaissance of the inner cities. Marina City’s mixed-use format of residential/office/retail with a parking base is the model still used today for downtown developments.

marina_towers_21013The approximately 105-foot diameter, circular residential towers consist of a 35-foot diameter, reinforced concrete, central core wall. The core wall thickness varies from 30 inches at the base to 12 inches at the top. The concrete core wall was built ahead of the reinforced concrete floor in a manner similar to modern skyscrapers such as Trump Tower, Chicago, and the Burj Dubai Tower. The structural engineer of record for Marina City was Severud Associates and the firm is still in practice today. Material Service provided the ready-mixed concrete.

The normal weight concrete supplied to the site had a maximum 28-day compressive strength of 7,000 psi and was utilized for the vertical load carrying system of the tower. The floor slabs and floor framing beams were cast using a lightweight concrete mix. Construction of the complex took approximately four years to complete. The ability of concrete to easily form the petal shapes of the apartments is one of the many reasons the engineer and architect selected reinforced concrete.

marina_city_20580The towers are supported on three concentric rings of piles constructed by the Case Foundation Company. The inner ring supports the central core and the two outer rings support the perimeter columns. The complex’s end-bearing piles were drilled 115-feet into the earth and the pile diameters varied from 24- to 66-inches. Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers were the foundation engineers and Dr. Ralph Peck, of the Illinois Institute of Technology, consulted on the foundations.

In 1961, architect Bertrand Goldberg said, “the towers will be like two trees, the central columns will house the elevators, stairways, and utility lines. They will be the trunks in the tree design.”

The 16 reinforced concrete beams radiate from the trunk as branches. Beyond the perimeter columns are 10-foot wide balconies that fan out like leaves in Goldberg’s tree analogy.

The lower 19 floors of each tower form an exposed, spiral parking ramp with 896 spaces per building. The residential floors are above the parking. A special 360-degree view, open-air roof deck is on the top story. Each residential unit is composed of triangular wedges with the bathroom and kitchens near the core and the living spaces along the perimeter. At the time of completion, the towers were the world’s largest “all electric” building.

Marina_City_3At the very base of the structure is an actual marina for pleasure craft. In addition to the towers’ 900 units, the complex also houses commercial offices, a theatre, bowling alley, swimming pool, skating rink, and a 1,200-seat auditorium.

Marina City was carefully conceived in terms of scale. The concrete twin towers stand out as an intriguing geometric texture against a carefully controlled and quiet composition of the background commercial buildings.

Cultural Reference
The towers have been featured in several movies and TV shows including The Bob Newhart Show, Blues Brothers, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In the movie, The Hunter, a car chase ends with a car driving off an upper floor of the garage and splashing into the Chicago River, this scene was later recreated for a 2006 Allstate commercial.

As a nod to the general belief that the towers’ architecture is timeless, in the science-fiction movie I, Robot, which is set in the future, the Marina City towers can be clearly seen adjacent to the super ultra-tall tower serving as the robot corporate headquarters.

Marina City truly represents the original “city within a city.” The modern design of the towers is as unique today as when they opened. The concrete structure has proven the test of time and represents a durable, sustainable design even by today’s standards.

Paul Heyer (1966). Architects on Architecture: New Directions in America. New York: Walker and Company.

Jay Pridmore, George Larson (2005). Chicago Architecture and Design: Revised and expanded. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc.

Antonio Terranova (2003). Skyscrapers. White Star Publishers.

2008 photos by Larry Novak.