Monday, November 26, 2012

Future Conditional

The dramatic fight to save Bertrand Goldberg's futuristic Prentice Hospital and the struggle to preserve modernist architecture.

Prentice Women's Hospital and Maternity Center...
Prentice Women's Hospital (Photo credit: UIC Digital Collections)
Chicago has a vivid history of architectural preservation battles. The famous book Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City, documents the city's numerous buildings that went by way of wrecking ball, until a formidable preservationist movement pushed back. And they pushed back courageously: as noted in our earlier post, Exile From Main Street: Reconstructing Urban Renewal, activists vociferously protested outside on a chilly Chicago April afternoon in 1972 when Mr. Nickel lost his life attempting to get the last interior photos of Louis Sullivan's iconic Stock Exchange building, before it was brought down to make way for a more modern design. Years later, Chicago's world renowned Art Institute recreated that same interior, seemingly out of a citywide sense of guilt for what had been destroyed.

No developer can get near a landmark Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright structure now. But what about the modernist buildings of the 60's and 70's that went up after the wrecking ball frenzy? They too have a place in the continuum of architectural history. It seems the time has come for preservationists to battle for the salvation of those buildings as well.

At present, Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital is where the front line of that fight seems to be. Best known for his 1964 mod-looking Marina City creation, which appears on nearly every Chicago post card, Prentice Hospital displays a similar playful, curvy, otherworldly aesthetic. But not for long: it's about to be scrapped.

To find the latest on this story, we caught up with architectural enthusiast and occasional Designer in Exile guest blogger Neil Rosario by phone from his Chicago home, steps away from River City, another Goldberg signature design:

What is the current status of the Prentice Hospital preservationist fight? Tell us what you know.

A city judge has given a reprieve until December 7. There's a stay of demolition. The judge has essentially questioned the legitimacy of the process that the landmark committee followed in revoking the landmark status. So essentially what happened was the landmark commission gave landmark status to Prentice, and then the city provided a study of the economic impact of not allowing Northwestern University to build a new biomedical research facility. At that point they revoked the landmark status. So what the judge was saying was that he wasn't sure that the protocol was followed to the law. To his credit, he's not necessarily saying that it shouldn't be demolished, he's simply saying that merits of the preservationists group's lawsuit hasn't been properly heard in a court of law. So on December 7th the case will be presented.

So this is definitely not over yet.

Prentice Women's Hospital and Maternity Center...
Prentice Women's Hospital (Photo credit: UIC Digital Collections)
It's not over yet, and more so, I think a pall has settled over the building, and people seem to have a sense that the demolition is inevitable. That this is Northwestern's property and they can do what they want with it.

Let's back up a bit and talk about the building itself, in your mind what is the significance of the building? You are a proponent of preserving this building. Why do you favor saving it over demolition?

It's just a striking building. If you walk around Streeterville, it's an area that's becoming more and more mundane. It's really the heart of where Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern University intersect, so they have a lot of different buildings in that area.

From a design perspective, from an aesthetics perspective, I guess people consider it an eyesore, and I don't understand why that's the case. Against a banal sidewall of these generic boxy buildings, you have this structure, just concrete, which I find inviting, it's striking in its design and I just can't see why people see it as an eyesore. But that's a matter of taste, the shifting sense of taste and shifting sense of what people view as beautiful. And I think that's important [to acknowledge], that people are caught up in their present values, in their present sense of what is beautiful. And there's just this general disdain for these 1970's type structures, that they're concrete. They may not see them as majestic as Mies van der Rohe, but in all the same, it's a striking design, this bold, beautiful, if not elegant concrete structure.

Even before I knew anything about architecture - before the whats, whys and hows - just walking around Streeterville, you couldn't help but stop and consider it. The porthole windows and the interesting shape of the building.

It has a sort of futuristic look to it, more so than strictly functional brutalism. Wouldn't you say?

Yes. I guess people just associate poured concrete buildings with brutalist architecture, but I must say that it definitely does have that 70's space age coolness about it. It would fit perfectly in a Stanley Kubrick backdrop.

Do you think modernist preservationists have a more difficult task at hand than those who are fighting to restore or save older more traditional buildings by architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright or Louis Sullivan?

Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House on the campus...
Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House on the campus of the University of Chicago. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I think so. People's tastes are very temporal and constantly evolving. So if you look today, popular culture, people are fetishizing 50's design because of the ubiquity of Madmen, things of that nature, and they now think that that's very hip.

Unfortunately, there's a couple things at play here. One is the shifting sense of what people think is beautiful, and the other is what Northwestern is arguing - not being able to build what they say is a 21st century research facility. It's somewhat ironic, though, because every time they talk about replacing this building, they tend to lean toward the future, that their hands are being tied from building something that's more modern to fit their needs. It's ironic because of the fact that this building, just from a structural and engineering perspective, is extremely modern in the way it was built, and the look of it is absolutely futuristic. It's unfortunate that the economy has sort of amplified Northwestern's case - I understand that Mayor Emanuel's argument was that this is going to create jobs. Likewise, Northwestern is saying that this is going to save lives by fueling research. It's hard to argue against it when they bring that into play.

My question would be why can't they save lives and create jobs in another building? Surely that argument can't just come down to Bertrand Goldberg's iconic structure. Is this the last spot on earth?

I think it's sort of a ransom approach. There's a vacant lot just south of the Goldberg building, but apparently that's owned by Northwestern Hospital, not Northwestern University, so essentially they're saying "that's not our land." But as it appears, the Goldberg building was given to the university as the result of a land swap. So people are asking why they cant just perform a land swap and give them the vacant lot property.

Was there any thought put to retrofitting the building to suit their needs?

Due to the structure needed for the facility, they said that they can't retrofit it. But interestingly enough, there was an idea put forward saying, "well why don't we just build on top of it." Save the original building and then create this whole new glass structure on top.

Sounds like Soldier's Field all over again.

Exactly [Laughing]. So they got world renowned architect Jeanne Gang to design an extroadinary glass structure that would sit above the original building. Of course, that would make it a whole new structure, and that sort of fell by the wayside anyway. I get the feeling that the decision to tear down the building was made long ago in Northwestern's mind, and they've just been going through the motions of this process while trying to appease preservationist sentiment.

It seems like the writing is on the wall, so to speak. Being from Chicago myself, I've gotten to know that when mayors want something, they usually get it.

Well, perhaps part of his legacy will be that he's the one who tore down the Goldberg building. But then again he has to balance that with the thought of having "blood on his hands" for not advancing this biomedical research facility. Unfortunately, it's come down to that.

Looks like some strong differences of opinion have developed, and an interesting battle ahead. Thanks for spending time with us.

My pleasure, and we'll see what happens on the 7th.

Updated 12/10/12:
The fight for the future of the Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital building has been postponed until Jan. 11. On Friday, the ruling judge on the case said oral arguments for the city's motion to dismiss the preservationist's lawsuit will be heard on Jan. 11. Save Prentice Coalition spokesperson and lawyer Michael Rachlis was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times saying the building "is safe for now."

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License, unless noted otherwise. Up next, using maps to tell stories and connect communities - powerful visual tools for media minds. Plus, a talk with Philly filmmaker and community advocate Jamie Moffet on renewing Kensington..

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