Although muscular towers became his architectural signature, Bertrand Goldberg spent his early career creating inventive solutions for manufacturing and the war effort. After studying architecture at Harvard University, courses at the acclaimed Bauhaus design school in Dessau, Germany introduced him to an industrialized vocabulary of construction that he employed in a variety of scales, from small pavilions to production lines. Shortly after his return to Chicago in 1933, Goldberg worked on George Fred Keck’s futuristic House of Tomorrow for the Century of Progress Exposition, an experience that he described as awakening his sense of the societal potential of innovation and technology during the bleak years of the Great Depression.
In this period of material scarcity and limited professional opportunity, Goldberg’s practice was experimental and diverse, ranging from Bauhaus-inspired costume designs to a series of demountable commercial mast structures produced with industrial components. Imagined as hybrids between buildings and transportation, these structures were later adapted to serve military purposes during World War II. His interest in prefabrication and industry extended into the 1950s with the Unicel, a new type of freight car created with a rigid monolithic plywood tube structure. While the Unicel freight car did not achieve mass production, it gave Goldberg important experience designing all aspects of the product line and promotional materials for its debut at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Most importantly, he later pointed to his work on the Unicel’s plywood tube as a decisive element in his rejection of Miesian post-and-beam construction in favor of tube and shell structures.
Bertrand Goldberg. Pressed Steel Car Company Plywood Freight Car, Cutaway Perspective, c. 1949–50. The Art Institute of Chicago, Archive of Bertrand Goldberg, gift of the Goldberg Family, RX23664/155.2.