The Ju Jitsu of Bertrand Goldberg

October 16, 2008

There is a myth in Chicago, that at the age of 46, after more than two decades of practice, Bertrand Goldberg sat up one morning and proclaimed “There are no right angles in nature, there for I shall never design another one in my architecture!” The actual account of this revelation provided to us in the epic interview entitled The Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg stems from a much more profound struggle between Goldberg’s commitment to industrialized architecture and the underlying geometries that govern it.

“My moment came in 1955, and I was designing a rather simple building. It may have even been a garage. It was a building roughly about four bays wide by six bays long or whatever, and the bay was say twenty five feet by twenty five feet. I thought, well here is a nice, simple building that I could learn something from that I had always wanted to try and never tried before. Now in the days when I grew up as a young architectural apprentice the question of who would detail the structural steel was always apart of the architect’s concerns. The architect did the design. He’d put in the columns where they where supposed to be, but with what we call the detailing of the steel – the steel connections, the way in which the steel was constructed – it was always a questioned as to whether the architect could design that or whether he cold simply write in the specifications that the contractor would do his own detailing. (…) By the time I had finished the dimensioning all the individual members for detailing, instead of having perhaps a half dozen or ten different sizes of steel I had a whole sheet of description of dimensions and sizes and selections of steel members. Suddenly this concept of industrialized structure erupted as myth, really, as a revelation. I had thought that because I was designing in a rectilinear form with a regularity of center lines that I was designing something that had to do with the industrialized world. Now, in my past I have actually built things, like an automobile or a pre fabricated house or bathroom, and I know a little about industrialization. Suddenly it occurred to me that this vast variety of sizes and types no longer was an industrialized form. If I built perhaps a hundred buildings that where identical, that would be industrialized because each part in its self would be repeated, but the parts themselves had no repetitive advantages. They where, in a sense, custom made. It was an assembly of custom made pieces, and this is not industrialization. And then almost at the same moment I began to investigate any other spatial form which would produce a repetitive regularity of structural members, and the only thing that I could find was either a shell or an egg. The only form for the garage that I could find was in a sense, a drum – a column at the center from which radial beams emerged. I had a regularity. Then I began to examine that form versus a rectilinear form in terms of wind stresses, in terms of usefulness, in terms of lots and lots of other values. Then I tried to discover whether living spaces could be designed in some of those spaces, and then I tried to discover if there where other ways of constructing a unified space other than with posts and beams. That is the way in which I first immersed myself in forms that had little or nothing to do with the rectangle, with the right angle.”[i]

There is something remarkable about this form of middle minded utopianism; where in the vision of a new world comes to us from a simple meditation about tectonic clarity. The contemporary practice of architecture finds its self searching for a similar silver bullet to our architectural problems. Once again we are faced with the daunting task of developing generative geometries that seek to synthesize disparate building systems, rationalize complex geometries, and maximize the economic scale of exotic building components. We are drawn to architects like Bertrand Goldberg because his work is evidence that it is possible to achieve these three architectural concerns with minimal means and conventional methods.

[i] Blum, Betty J. The Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg. Chicago Architects Oral History Project, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago 1992 (revised 2001) p.50


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