and now, a short message

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

Habemus Papam, Habemus Piazza


The piazza of St. Peter’s Basilica, 13 March 2013

The first basilica constructed to house Christian worship on the site where St. Peter was buried fulfilled the liturgical needs of the early (make that very early: fourth-century-early) Church precisely.  With the patronage of the first professing Christian emperor behind it, the church was built solidly and was intended to last the centuries.

With proper maintenance, it would still be standing there in its brick-walled, timber-roofed, mixed-up spolia glory.  But Constantine’s big basilica ran afoul of the new developments in aesthetic theory and specifically the revived sense of beauty that was current in the early sixteenth century.  Humanism happened, and what we now call the Renaissance was well underway.  Pope Julius II (1503-13), one of the tastiest popes in history, ordered the destruction of the old barn of a church to make way for something beautiful to modern eyes, something that would be a more appropriate formal setting for the rituals of the Church, given the revived interest in the glorious of ancient Rome and its prominence in Church history.

About a century and a half (and almost two dozen popes, not to mention a gaggle of architects, sculptors and other artists) later, the church stood complete, pretty much in today’s final form: Michelangelo’s great dome rose over the mass fronted by Maderno’s great facade that features the balcony of appearances, while Bernini’s lengthy colonnades swept forward to define the piazza. It is, truly, a glorious setting: one that at once celebrates the power of the Roman Catholic Church and provides a proper setting for its head.

It was to this stage that so many of us turned on 13 March 2013, especially as news of the white smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel spread through the airwaves and over the internets.  Fortunate souls in Rome swarmed the streets in a migration of pilgrims to the piazza, filling it by the tens of thousands.  Around the world the rest of us looked on from a distance, electronically-enabled to be brought visually into the piazza through the medium of whatever screen was most easily accessible.

Almost four centuries ago, the piazza’s architect, Bernini, famously described his design as the “motherly arms of the Church;” the colonnades were designed to “reach out with open arms to embrace Catholics to reaffirm their belief, heretics to reunite them with the Church, and agnostics to enlighten them with the true faith.”  Surely he never dreamt that his concetto would work on such a scale, the piazza embracing not only those who could be physically in the place, but also onlookers from thousands of miles away.

on the balcony

Francis appears

On this Wednesday, the attention of everyone in the piazza–both really, and virtually, there–centered on the new head of the Church.  By all accounts, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, now Pope Francis, is a simple and humble man, as indicated by his choice of name that references the willfully impoverished saint of Assisi.  His walk supports the talk: in his home country he visited slums, rode the bus, prepared his own meals.  On the evening of his election, the image of his silhouetted form, simple white against the dark drapes of the balcony, reinforced his apparent nature, which is emphasized by the difference between it and his environment.  In this way, the architectural setting of the Vatican works in a very different manner than its original patrons intended.  While so many popes luxuriated in the richness of their position (Leo X, pope from 1513-21, infamously proclaimed “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it,” and enthusiastically set about emptying Vatican coffers as only a Medici could do), their material culture works both for and against their church and its head.  On the one hand, the spectacular glory of the place and its piazza is a fitting monument to such a powerful denomination, some 1.2 billion members strong and two millennia old.  However, it is also a reminder of grotesque excesses, the kind that got Martin Luther and his lot all in a lather.


The simple casket of John Paul II, being blessed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at the pope’s funeral.  Ratzinger was elected pope eleven days later.

But that excess can now be turned to new expressive purpose.  The elegance and expense is also a foil for simplicity and prudence, reinforcing the reforms of recent popes.  The statement of poverty made by the casket that held the body of Pope John Paul II–a simple wooden vessel for the one of clay within–, was made all the more powerful by its placement within the monument of Renaissance and Baroque artistry.  Likewise, St. Peter’s scale and majesty made the lone figure of the new pope all the more small and humble, communicating that this leader of millions is, in many ways, very much alone.

It is a simple truth of architectural history that some of its great monuments, from palaces to churches and mausoleums to capitols, were built by people who were not, on the whole, praiseworthy–some of them could barely be described as occasionally honorable.  That is what separates the past (the fact that certain ignoble people built noble things) from history (what we do with those things they left behind).  Goodness or badness of person is not necessarily reflected in their buildings: we are blessed by the wondrous artistic fruits of great as well as corrupt people.  What we choose to do with and to them, and how we maintain and preserve, utilize and adapt, or neglect and destroy, is what articulates our contemporary values.  Likewise, the way that Francis utilizes the incomparable architectural heritage and the traditions of patronage to which he is now heir will say a lot about him.

Initial–at this point, indeed, very initial–speculation about the pontificate of Pope Francis suggests that he will not produce very much good architecture, but he may indeed produce very much good.

the funeral of John Paul II

The funeral of John Paul II, 08 April 2005

let us now praise small historic sites: Bishop Hill, Illinois

outbuildings and garden (near West Main Street)

Some travel destinations are really messed up by tourism.  Recently a funeral was held for Venice, and not due to the city’s imminent drowning (click here for the NYTimes article).  Instead, the cause of the city’s demise was identified as death by tourism.  The native population of Venice has dwindled markedly in recent decades while tourists—to whom the content of the city’s monuments, shops and cultural events are more and more directed—are more and more overrunning the city.  Venice has not achieved that delicate balance between attractions for out-of-towners and sustenance for natives, which need to be carefully blended, rather than segregated, to ensure the health of a place.


the Colony Church (1848)

Located far from established commercial and tourist magnets, Bishop Hill, Illinois has been isolated since its founding in the 1840s.  That seclusion was first the product of its founders’ desire to establish a religious/agricultural utopia; it was later “enhanced” by being bypassed by such developments as rail and highways that were built in other regions of the Prairie State.  Although the lack of such developments have meant certain and real challenges for the residents of the town, it also has contributed to the preservation of the town’s physical character, as well as its continued tradition of the cultural identity as a place set apart.  For these reasons, Bishop Hill is a wonderful place to travel.


the Colony Church

Bishop Hill was founded by a charismatic, religious zealot named Erik Jansson who emigrated in 1846 after rejecting Sweden’s state-run Lutheranism.  In Illinois, the Janssonites dug in (literally) for their first brutal winter; soon thereafter they began to flourish.  Within three years they abandoned dugout shelters for frame houses, and soon built flour and saw mills and a fine large church; a school, hotel and other public buildings would follow within a decade, all set among hundreds of acres of farmland that revealed the success of their utopian experiment.  Participating in a highly structured communal organization that included a carefully orchestrated division of labor, the colonists developed significant craft skills and an economy of export goods. In addition, through its early years, the village established itself as ground zero for Swedish immigration to Illinois, leading the many waves of Scandinavian immigrants throughout the Midwest.


the Colony Church

All was well until the shockingly violent death of Jansson, who was shot dead by his cousin’s husband during the recess from a criminal trial at which the husband was the defendant.  So deep was the colony’s belief in Jansson’s spiritual leadership that he laid in state for three days, but unlike their Savior, this Prophet did not rise again.  This drama unfolded in 1850, less than four years after the colony’s founding.  In Jansson’s place a group of trustees was appointed to run the thriving colony until it fell victim to the Panic of 1857 (like so much of the rest of the country).  Financial crisis and apparent mishandling of the colony’s finances lead to its dissolution in 1861, some fifteen years after the first colonists broke ground.


the Colony Church

From its peak of over 1,000 (at a time that Chicago’s population numbered just under 30,000), Bishop Hill has dwindled to fewer than 150 residents.  The silver lining behind any town’s lack of growth and development (especially through the 1950s and ‘60s) has meant the survival of dozens of its original buildings.  Many, like the Colony Church, are well-preserved and maintain their original furniture, lighting fixtures, paint finishes and other fittings.


the Colony Church


the Steeple Building (1854)

Not all of Bishop Hill’s buildings have been preserved quite so well as the church due to the financial challenges that any historic community faces—especially small ones far away from other tourist centers.  But in an odd way, that lack of preservation is a kind of asset.  Old buildings, scrubbed within an inch of their lives to remove all time-worn patina become curious, unnatural things that seem to exist outside of the actual passing of time.  A little dirt, a little wear, is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it gives evidence to the continued use of buildings.


the Steeple Building

Then again, severe lack of maintenance is not just visually troublesome but can also be a real threat to a building’s longevity.  Some of the buildings in Bishop Hill are in desperate need of stabilization—the Steeple Building is prominent among them.  The buildings of Bishop Hill that are in need of attention are not languishing due to neglect.  Residents are fiercely devoted to their little town, and most of the building stock shows that serious, ongoing attention has been paid to caring for the historic buildings, many of which are preserved and interpreted according to their specific original functions.  Like the church, much of the Colony Hotel is arranged to reveal the standards of comfort and charm to which visitors to the colony would be treated during their visit in the mid-nineteenth century.

In addition to these buildings which provide a kind of living, walk-through museum environment, the Colony Church and the Steeple Building  house museum exhibits dedicated to the craft of the Swedish immigrants who made the original colony such a success.  Artifacts of all sorts—bricks signed by the people who molded them, furniture and in situ doors that reveal the Swedish skill of trompe-l’œil work, ceramics and quilts—are nicely arranged and explained in thematic exhibits.  When I was there in October the overcast sky and nineteenth-century window glass worked together to ensure a beautifully-lit display of tools and crafts.






spinning wheel



bricks (made at the Colony and often signed by their makers)




window, drapes, pitcher, linen: Vermeer would have liked Bishop Hill

While the buildings and artifacts provide an obvious draw for people interested Swedish culture and/or Illinois history (perhaps especially—although I don’t think exclusively—Illinoisans), one of the reasons that Bishop Hill is such an interesting site is the strong communal or civic quality that survives here.  Partly this is owed to the sum of the parts: Bishop Hill is not a place to go see individual masterpieces, or isolated, prestigious civic structures.  From the craft displays to the dozens of outbuildings (both agricultural and industrial) that survive, Bishop Hill allows a more complete view of the full nineteenth-century landscape than is available in most similar historic sites.  Jansson may have been the guiding force behind the Colony, but its relics are memorials to the hundreds of colonists who called the village home.



Bishop Hill preserves a fine collection of nineteenth-century building stock that reveals a really interesting blend of their builders’ immigrant details (brick and wood work, especially) met with the classicizing influence of the Midwest at mid-century (Doric pilasters and rendering on the Steeple Building).  Many of the “background buildings,” especially houses, still serve their original functions.  Ongoing restoration efforts provide their own opportunity for seeing the process of preservation in buildings like the barns to the left.




carpenters' building

Other structures have been turned to good adaptive reuse—mostly into shops, restaurants and galleries.  Their continued use ensures their maintenance.  Many of the nineteenth-century service buildings have been well adapted to new uses, like the Carpenters’ Building.  Its lower level is a shop with space for artisans to work and sell their fiber and ceramic wares; the upper level has been stripped of its nineteenth-century fabric and serves as a clean contemporary gallery. A different character is achieved at the Poppy Barn, with a dim and rough-hewn interior stuffed with products made by a family of basket weavers and iron workers.


Poppy Barn (now a shop)


the dairy

Other buildings, like the brick Dairy, have been stabilized, but await new tenants and new uses to breathe life into them.

The several galleries and shops that feature the work of local artists support the town’s past identity and future potential as a center of craft production in the region (the town’s role as host for an Annual Midwest Folk Festival should help here too).  Likewise, Bishop Hill also maintains traditions of immigrant cooking, from specific Swedish recipes (frikadeller, the eponymous meatball, no shortage of lingonberry-themed pastries) to general approach of using fresh and local ingredients in hearty midwestern fare.  Food traditions tend to be the last practice that immigrants give up when assimilating, and the world is a better place for the preservation of Swedish dishes in Bishop Hill.


meatballs, sausage, beets, cabbage, brown bread and noodles (P.L. Johnson's)


frikadeller, dill sauce and sour cream, cucumbers and more beets (the Red Oak)

(However, vegans and low-carb fanatics be warned: Bishop Hill may be your Strait of Messina, with only the stray slice of cucumber or beet saving you from a culinary Scylla and Charybdis.)

It would not be difficult for Bishop Hill to become a caricature of itself: frozen meatballs, Swedish chef puppets.  Thankfully, a visit to Bishop Hill is not like passing through a time warp or into a Disneyfied Scandi-land.  Costumed interpreters may show you how to bake rye bread or put a faux finish on a piece of wood, but there is no artifice among the people beyond the bonnets and breeches.  This is one of the great strengths of Bishop Hill: the locals are crazy about the village, its heritage, their current lives there, and their optimism for its future health.  During my recent weekend in Bishop Hill I heard time and again from residents that they would never live anywhere else.  This dedication is clear in the care for the buildings and landscape, the volunteerism at the very nice small museums sprinkled throughout the historic structures, the character of locally-sourced art and craft in the galleries, and certainly the quality of the dining (two days of Bishop Hill cooking forced me take back every mean thing I have ever said about Scandinavian cuisine and even made me believe there might indeed be a place in the world for fruit pies).  Bishop Hill is not a place where history is protected behind a Plexiglas wall or caricatured as oldey-timey nostalgia.  It’s a place of living tradition, beautiful craft, quiet landscapes and pastries that will bring you to your knees.  The story of Eric Jansson and his colonists may have run its course, but the interdependent character of those utopian Swedes (and really, is there any other kind?) is alive and well in Bishop Hill.  This legacy ornaments a really lovely little village.


quad-berry pie at the Red Oak

For current information on visiting Bishop Hill, click here.

For the Annual Midwest Folk Festival, held in Bishop Hill, click here

happy birthday, Francesco Borromini

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Rome (May 2007)

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Rome (May 2007)

MoT‘s editorial board selected  Francesco Borromini’s birthday (September 25, 1599) as the launch date for Taste Matters for two reasons, one scholarly and one personal.

First, it was during an undergraduate course in Baroque and Rococo architecture that MoT COT (Chief Officer of Taste) determined to forgo plans for a future in the practice of architecture (where she might have charge of a few good buildings but be subject to potentially questionable personalities) and instead become an architectural historian, writer and critic (where she might spend all her time with fantastic buildings and extraordinary talent).  Life as a historian and academic allows one to think, read and write about beautiful (and not-beautiful) buildings, what makes them so, and how they came to look the way they do.  It also encourages one to travel to go see these things in person.  MoT owes a debt to Borromini and his peers for providing the academic and professional justification for past and future travels chasing down buildings. Molti grazie, il signore.

Second, the nature of Borromini’s work is at the center of this blog’s concerns. Although it would be difficult to identify any architect whose work has never been subject to criticisms stemming from the changing nature of public and critical taste, Borromini is a poster child for this problem. As one of the primary architects of Roman Baroque architecture, Borromini worked during the Counter-Reformation. During this period the Catholic Church responded to Protestants’ calls for reform by blowing huge theological raspberries.  Some of them eventually took the shape of new chapels that were meant to celebrate the triumph of the Church and inspire spiritual and emotional responses among the faithful.

Borromini was ideally suited for this task. Steeped in Roman building tradition and with great family connections and gobs of creative energy to spare, he designed complex and marvelous buildings, surprising and confounding in their manipulations of the architect’s standard palette of materials and forms. He could stretch small budgets and meager sites to deliver the wow factor of much more expensive buildings. Well-received by his clients, Borromini’s work was unevenly assessed within decades, and then fell quickly in the estimation of the following centuries. Although the Baroque period was seen, overall, as pretty tasteless by the eighteenth-century Neo-Classicists who gave the period its name (“baroque” originally referring to a kind of misshapen pearl), it was Borromini whose buildings were singled out as being especially ugly, chaotic, confused. In the twentieth century Borromini’s work met with the reappraisal accounts for him now being a celebrated, rather than a censured, architect.

Had Neo-Classicists had their way, Rome might have been swept clean of Baroque architecture. This potential demolition raises questions that are unique neither to Rome nor other periods. Whose taste should prevail from generation to generation? Should we act to remove buildings that we think are unsightly, or preserve them in the expectation that future generations might cherish them? Does that mean saving everything, no matter what? Or is there something inherently valuable about work like Borromini’s, that is provocative and delightful, that should help us identify what is really good and worth preservation efforts? To what extent do we honor the building’s cultural relevance, at the time of its construction or in our own?

Finally, can we deem any architecture inherently good or bad, or is it all subject to the changing nature of preference–either public or private, communal or personal, matters of taste?  Especially on Borromini’s birthday we like to wrestle with these questions and tackle great big cakes as luscious as his spectacular buildings.