it’s time to let Prentice go

there it is, in October 2012

The long, tortured story of Prentice Women’s Hospital, sparked by the conflict between its owner’s plans for demolition and its supporters’ fervent efforts to preserve the building, has wound its way through chambers of public hearing (and no doubt some backrooms of City Hall), classrooms and lecture halls, and certainly has had a profound presence in the more ephemeral world of electronic media.  After a series of bizarre and heated meetings, threats of legal action, suits and counter-suits, opinions voted up and then down by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, both the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois have elected to forego continued legal action against the building’s owner, Northwestern University.  Nothing blocks the way for the demolition crew.  The fat lady has sung, and she’s revving up the crane and hoisting the wrecking ball.  Although supporters of the building, designed by Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg in 1969, are justified in their frustration with the Commission as well as their skepticism about NU’s justification for their actions, they shouldn’t waste any energy or tears mourning the loss.

Preservation in America–where the rights of private property owners and values of a community often come into conflict–is a sticky matter.  In Chicago it’s especially so.  The city has long prided itself on its youthful, brash reputation: a working city where change is über alles.  Even the legendary Burnham, as he organized the Exposition of 1893 and laid out the 1909 Plan on design principles learned from imperial European capitals, knew what was what.  Big Uncle Dan provided for miles of train tracks and highways to funnel people and goods into the heart of a city striving skyward, and dressed the “tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities” in a French frock, all the while drawing big paychecks from captains of industry who built those tall and soaring things that, as Cass Gilbert so rightly said, would make the land pay.  Chicago will have its history, and its traditions, but on its own progressive terms: even the supporters of its most elegant and beloved throw-back, the Tribune Tower, knew to describe the skyscraper not as historic or beautiful, but as rational and a stylistic evolution of architecture.

So it makes sense for Chicago to do a lot of tearing-down to make room for the new building-up.  But in the midst of all that activity the city has learned the hard lesson of rash decisions dictated by private interest and within eras of changing taste–perhaps most egregiously in those decades when all those Chicago School buildings were knocked down to make room for, (at best) Mies boxes (but it was usually for much worse).  Just a quick visual inventory of the neighborhood in which Prentice stands (which is the evidence of NU’s track record in recent decades) does not raise high hopes that the replacement building will be a great one. Maybe they have a surprise in store and will hire some flashy architect–which will prompt a whole new debate.  Either way, it is, ultimately, their prerogative to do with the building and site what they like.

NU: cramped for space.

Except that they shouldn’t just do what they like.  It’s one thing for the University’s trustees to exercise their prerogative free from public scrutiny in places where it is private–say, in the choice of art that hangs in the halls where they make deals and smoke cigars and do whatever it is that trustees do.  Their buildings, which represent the University’s presence in the public sphere, are another matter.  This is true of any single individual or corporate entity in a place like Chicago: doing business in the city generates a contract; if you want to take part in that city, and take from it, you also need to contribute to it: have some deference, or at least expressed concern, for the way your actions affect the people who you may not know, but who contribute to this great city from which you draw so many obvious benefits.  And that’s where NU  has dropped the ball.  We’d expect any organization with such a prominent public face in Chicago to have some interest in the manner in which their actions communicate to the public–especially, perhaps, a university, which we would hope to be more enlightened and public-minded than a business.  Instead, NU turned a deaf ear to the preservation and architectural communities, as well as local grassroots voices, by floating spurious claims about the building’s soundness and adaptability and the University’s desperate need for precious land to extend their facilities.

Odd claim, that last one, observing the giant open lot immediately adjacent to Prentice.  As for the other justifications for the building’s necessary demise: it’s called maintenance, and although concrete is not an easy material to repair once spalling begins, where there’s a will (or a Wright) there’s a way.  The big box base certainly would be a piece of cake to adapt into virtually any use, and while the concrete cylinders and wedge-shaped rooms make certain demands on flexibility, there’s plenty of university functions that could be housed there (probably even enjoyably so–who wouldn’t want to break out of cubicle-land and have an office here?).  NU could find great ideas in the reports and proposals made by agencies interested in the building’s preservation.  Or they could just ask any creative architect they might run across sketching in their Moleskines at the nearest Intelligentsia.  (The misguided “it’s always better and cheaper to start from scratch” club need not apply.)


on the street

Then again, just because NU has bad reasons to kill the building does not mean its supporters have made a hugely successful case in favor of its survival.  Truly this is an uphill task, since Goldberg’s concrete cans are difficult to love.  (A softer, more undulating scheme, seen below, might have been an easier sell, but probably not much.)  At best the building is appreciated, and the Brutalist vein of Modernism certainly has its fanboys out there.  They argue that Prentice is important: it’s a hefty achievement by a famous Chicago architect and a good example of this short-lived (but not, in and of itself, good) style of building.  But one has to ask: is the city meant to be a collection of architectural styles, no matter how unloved, outmoded, or controversial?  If so, how many is enough?

Choosing Prentice as a poster child to represent its architectural tribe is also a tough climb, since the days of articulating absolute criteria of architectural quality are long gone.  Instead, we can only judge “importance” by current preferences–usually defined by the profession–, and that is usually weighed against the contemporary demands of commercial and/or private interests.  This is not new in Chicago.  Thus Jenney’s significant, but homely, Home Insurance Building fell to make way for the glitzy Field Building; Cobb’s crusty behemoth Federal Building was blipped for the sleek Modernist tour de force that is Federal Plaza, and the Beaux-Arts Chicago and Northwestern Terminal was whumped out of existence by Murphy/Jahn’s 42-floor Citigroup Center.  Were these losses all tragic mistakes?  Is any one of them a “beneficial demolition”?  Are any less painful because of what replaced it, either by style or in the name of “progress”?  Who can say?  And if we can’t say, then what can we do: let all private initiative rampage through the city’s built fabric?  Or mothball the whole thing?

the architect, ca. 1980

the architect, ca. 1980

For raising these hard questions, the conflict surrounding Prentice has been valuable for the preservation movement–even if it’s been useful for neither the building nor for its owner.  Ideally, it’s been of value to the architectural profession, if its practitioners will take the opportunity to reflect on the saga.  Perhaps its lesson is that architectural ideas forged in the Futurist furnace, building on the dictum of Sant’Elia in 1914 that “every generation must build its own city,” makes certain that some buildings will be certainly obsolete in less than a half-century.    Goldberg appears to have had no interest in ensuring that his hospital would last for very long: a “state-of-the-art” facility for a scientific discipline that by its nature keep changing, yet which ensconced the progressive ideas of the moment in concrete–literally!–was bound to fail in the not-distant future.  He must have known that, just as he was aware of the fickle nature of architectural taste from decade to decade.  Like many Modernists, Goldberg designed a DNR order into the very fabric of his building. Perhaps decorum dictates that we should respect his wishes, and let it go.

And at the same time, we should learn the lesson that the buildings that are really worthy of being saved are the ones that are loved and understood and appreciated by lots of people–not just those who can make a professional case that requires listeners to scope through an architectural glossary to keep up with the argument.  Architects who want their work to last longer than their own life spans might consider–egad–popular opinion and taste.  Robert Venturi was on to something when he argued in favor of buildings that were “conventional . .  . [and] accommodating.” One might also reconsider the source of the best criteria for judgement: is it the mercurial profession and its erudite critics, or everyone else?

Better yet, why are these two groups not on the same page?  When did they diverge, and what would it take to get them back together, speaking the same language and supporting the same things?

These are the questions that need to be considered, and ideally answered, before the next ridiculous go-round with the apparently eviscerated Landmarks Commission.  In the meantime, haters can cheer when the demolition ball swings or when the explosives fuses blow.  Ambivalent people should just go away, because architectural discourse is no place for ambivalence.  Supporters of the hospital, its architect, Modernism in general and Brutalism in specific, need to move on. But do so, remembering the immortal words of Fedora, and gird themselves for the next battle.

Prentice Women's Hospital, Chicago, IL, Early Perspective, c. 1970

Prentice Women’s Hospital, early perspective (ca. 1970), from the Art Institute


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