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In an oral history conducted by the Art Institute's Betty Blum, architect Bertrand Goldberg (1913-1997) talked about how he should have known more about his mother's life, "but her life was, like most mothers, always so close to mine that I thought that was the only life she ever had."
Our relationship with buildings is like that. Apart from a small number that we actually watch growing up from the ground, we experience a building as a done deal. As far as our personal everyday experience is concerned, it's always been there, always will be there. And never could have been anything else.
Nowhere is this complex, anything-can-happen process better captured than in the exhibition, Bertrand Goldberg: Reflections, at The Arts Club of Chicago through February 8 of 2012.
Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention, the long-awaited blockbuster retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago that runs through January 15 and draws on the museum's extensive Goldberg collection and archives, bequeathed to the museum by the architect. The show is spectacular and encyclopedic, beautifully designed by John Ronan and Cheryl Towle Weese, with a great, catalog edited by curator Zoë Ryan, richly illustrated and including a series of thoughtful and informative essays. No question about it: if you care about architecture, it's a must-see show, which I hope to write about more before it closes.
As you walk through the wedge-shaped galleries with their mirrored gateways, you feel the sweep of history, from Goldberg's 1938 North Pole Ice Cream stand, with its roof suspended from cables hung form a tall mast, to his last great vision, River City, from the 1980's. Even as you observe the projects evolve, each individual stage looks inevitable and immutable.
In a small adjoining gallery, however, you get what's usually missing from exhibitions such as these: a sense of a building as it's experienced and lived through time. Inside Marina City: A Project by Iker Gil and Andreas E.G. Larsson examines Goldberg's most famous creation by going beyond the abstract to see the architecture as it is experienced and transformed by its residents. While in the big show next door, the photographs tend to hew black-and-white, Inside Marina City explodes with color. In place of the snow-white, abstracted form of the Goldberg's pie-shaped wedges, we see those spaces animated through habitation, with glimpses of how dozens of Marina City residents have taken that basic container and made it their own. Some of the views appear to extend all the way back to original tile bathrooms and pink-cabineted kitchens.
Bertrand Goldberg: Reflections, like the Art Institute's Architecture of Innovation, moves in the opposite direction, going back to the beginning and moving sequentially to the end to define a lifetime of work. Reflections adds another dimension. In addition to renderings and drawings, it draws heavily on Goldberg's "personal collection of art and artifacts."
Don't expect to find smoking guns -"Aha, that's where Marina City came from!" - but where a traditional exhibition makes you a passive observer of a fait accompli progression, Reflections invites you to bring your own imagination to connecting the dots between the things Goldberg collected and the meaning behind the work he created.
No two observers will the see the connections the same way, but to me it begins with a late, chalk-on-paper work by Paul Klee, Kindes statt (childlike state), that is unlike anything else I've seen from that artist: a borderless membrane of cells in green, gold and rust, given depth with a chiaroscuro texturing, separated by a irregular grid of thin charcoal lines that angle, bend, branch and insinuate small pods into larger cells. Klee pulls on the collapsed regularity of Miesian geometry until the grid dissolves and blossoms into an organic web of asymmetric spaces that flood with color, pulse with pattern. The impression is not one of fragility, but of a mysterious, timeless strength, like moss clinging to a rock, observing the millenia pass by.
The artwork reminds us that early in his life, Goldberg had a knack of being in the right place at the right time, traveling to Germany in 1932 to apprentice in the offices of Mies van der Rohe and study at the illustrious Bauhaus with such teachers as Wassily Kandinsky and Josef Alberts. Paul Klee taught there, as well. Goldberg was in Berlin when the Reichstag burned. He heard Le Corbusier lecture at the Arts Club in 1935. In 1937, he accompanied Mies van der Rohe and helped translate for the famous visit to Frank Lloyd Wright in Taliesen. It was all preparation for when Goldberg would break free of the what he called the "Right Angle Club" to create a new modernist alternative in such works as Marina City, the Hilliard Homes, and Prentice Hospital.
The small catalogue places the objects of the exhibition photographed in their original context, such as in the kitchen Goldberg designed for his mother-in-law Lillian Florsheim, including rounded metal appliance "garages", a spice rack made out of baking tins, and an amazingly complicated winch, made out of perforated stainless steel and metal engine parts, that allowed Florsheim to adjust the height and angle of a large lighting fixture near the ceiling. Its drill-like crank, detached and displayed to the side, has the aura of a Medieval torture device. (Geoffrey Goldberg told me that once Florsheim got the light in the desired position, she never moved it again.)
Free from a chronological structure, the objects in the exhibition offer up striking juxtapositions, such as in the corner where a working drawing for the Ronchamp-like theater for Marina City is next to a drawing of swirling ornament for a recreation of the Belle Époques splendor of Maxim's de Paris in the basement of Goldberg's strikingly modernist Astor Tower, next to a collage of a color field design for a Jack-in-the-Box(!) drive-in, next to a beautiful cut-away rendering of the architect's design for the Unicel Plywood Freight Car.
There's a selection of photographs taken by the architect, including a shot of Mies's iconic 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive apartments over which Goldberg places an arbitrary frame that challenges the geometric "perfection" of the offset box-like towers. The great thing about the photographs is that they're not the usual shots that look like a neutron bomb went off, leaving the buildings but getting rid of the messy humanity. In one Goldberg photo . . .
In the Art Institute, there's a study of circles Goldberg did while studying with Josef Albers at the Bauhaus. A quarter of century later, when Goldberg got the commission from Michael Todd to reimage Howard Crane's classically styled Harris Theater as a high-glamour showplace suitable for showing Todd's spectacularly successful Around the World in Eighty Days, Goldberg collaborated with Albers on a unique design for the theater's doors. According to Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson, Albers had a succession of circles sandblasted at varying depths into the glass panels of the doors. The aluminum doors bore concealed neon tubes all along the inside perimeter of the frames. When the light from the tubes hit the glass, it became visible only on the sandblasted surfaces, creating the appearance of "glowing circles of light" floating on the glass.
photo: Hedrich Blessing Archive at the Chicago History MuseumUnfortunately, that glass no longer exists, but a section of the ceiling lighting Goldberg created for the Michael Todd, lovingly restored, rows of small round bulbs in counterpoint to the circles in the doors, has a prominent place at the Arts Club exhibition.
photo: Hedrich Blessing Archive at the Chicago History MuseumThere's also a selection of furniture designed by Goldberg. A menu from Maxim's. A Clavilux, championed by no less than Leopold Stokowski as generating "a new art of color in form and motion" moving toward a day when art could be "pure spirit." Two pairs of suspenders, one gold, one rainbow, some primitive sculpture, a monkey's skull. Add up all the wonderful array of objects in Reflections and they spell - well, no, not "Rosebud" - but "Bud" (Goldberg), a man of unending curiosity and creativity, who wrote all the way back in 1967 . . .
Dynamic space is not an architecture of grids, of walls, of modular intervals of structure and form. This is rather an architecture of forces, of energies, of movements of spaces. This is an architecture regulated by time, volume, and change. These are spaces which will be built from materials have have living plasticity, like the human body. Cells of space, forming a structure as they combine together, will have a spatial biology
Walton-Seneca Building, 1977 (unbuilt)
Bertrand Goldberg was ahead of both the curve and his time in seeing what architecture could become. Reflections is as close as you're likely be able to get inside this restless, ambitious, and relentlessly creative spirit.