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Find Chicago’s Best Brutalist Architecture With the Concrete Chicago Map

Architect and urban designer Iker Gil pays tribute—and shows you where to find it.

Iker Gil’s Concrete Chicago Map points readers to the best of the form.   Photo: Blue Crow Media

Few buildings represent their city in the way Marina City represents Chicago: the twin concrete corncobs rising over the river are one of its most recognizable sights. But it’s more than just a pretty picture. Bertrand Goldberg’s breakthrough project brought people back to downtown living and brought concrete to heights it had never reached.

Marina City reflects the mid-century flourishing of concrete as a material, and new generations have come to appreciate its beauty through the Brutalism revival. Recently Chicago architect and urban designer Iker Gil worked with Blue Crow Media, an independent publisher based in London, to create the Concrete Chicago Map as an exhibit of modern design and a tribute to the city’s architecture landscape. One side of the map places our most compelling concrete buildings on the city grid, while the other features black and white photos of and information about them. We spoke to Gil about its creation.

What makes Chicago’s concrete architecture unique compared to other U.S. cities that Blue Crow Media has created maps of?

Every city has its unique characteristics and history and it is important to frame and discuss architecture within its particular context. In Chicago we see a large number of educational and institutional concrete buildings from the 1960s and 1970s that in more or less intensity define the identity of University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University, and University of Chicago.

Northwestern University Main Library Photo: Jason Woods for Blue Crow Media

But during that period we also find single-family and multifamily buildings that use concrete, from Bruce Graham’s own house to Marina City. The map also looks at more recent concrete buildings, from Tadao Ando to Studio Gang and Perkins+Will, which helps to discuss the legacy of the earlier buildings and the current explorations.

How would you describe Chicago’s style of architecture?

It’s impossible to single out a style of architecture. Luckily, Chicago’s architectural legacy is unmatched and many great architects have left their mark since the Great Chicago Fire. Chicago is an open-air museum that includes remarkable commercial buildings built at the turn of the twentieth century, iconic modernist buildings, and seminal skyscrapers among many others. While we typically celebrate the well-known architects, it is important to go beyond the surface to pay attention to other overlooked figures whose work also defines the fabric of the city and provide noteworthy contributions.  

St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital by Perkins + Will Photo: Jason Woods for Blue Crow Media

Can you share about architects Bertrand Goldberg and Walter Netsch of the late 20th century and what mark they left on the city?

Both Bertrand Goldberg and Walter Netsch (as design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) are responsible for many of the concrete buildings of the period. Their aesthetic, interests, and the typology of their buildings differ greatly. While Netsch’s contributions are found in university campuses—UIC, Northwestern, and University of Chicago—several of Goldberg’s significant contributions focused on multifamily housing projects: Marina City, Raymond Hilliard Homes, and River City for example).

Behavioral Science Building, UIC, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Photo: Jason Woods for Blue Crow Media

Their work is complex, in some cases misunderstood, and not without controversies. UIC’s Circle Campus was heavily modified in the 1990s and Prentice Women’s Hospital was unforgivably demolished a few years ago. But it is important to evaluate their projects both for their strong aesthetics as well as for the way they aim to reshape education in the case of Netsch’s UIC, and urban living, in the case of Goldberg’s projects. The more you look at [Goldberg’s] body of work, the more unexpected and relevant aspects you find.

Marina City is probably the most iconic Chicago building on the map. Why has Marina City remained so popular and is still so recognizable since it was built?

Marina City is a truly remarkable building that was groundbreaking when it was built and it is still as relevant as ever. The residential towers are highly visible from some of the most important streets in Chicago and their unusual shape make them impossible to miss, but it is important to remember other aspects that make the complex unique. Besides the structural and construction innovations that made them the tallest reinforced concrete buildings at the time, Marina City championed living and working in the city, understood the value of the river, envisioned a 24-hour-a-day complex, and ultimately celebrated urban life. As we now celebrate the riverwalk, it is important to remember that Goldberg envisioned its potential fifty years earlier.

What lesser-known building on the map should readers check out in person?

I would recommend visiting Bertrand Goldberg’s Wilbur Wright College. It is one of his last projects and one that is not very well known. It features four large buildings, including a pyramid-shaped structure with an impressive central atrium. The tubular bridges that connect the pyramid building to two others, along with the rounded windows in the other buildings, give the campus a particular and interesting futuristic look. Being familiar with many other Goldberg buildings, it was a treat to visit this one for the first time.

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