Prentice Women’s Hospital April 2011

April 11, 2011 Chicago Buildings, Sustainability Comments (3) 137

The most significant preservation battle in Chicago for some time has been the effort to save Prentice Women’s Hospital, a pioneering 1975 design by Bertrand Goldberg. It’s four-lobed curving concrete form is being imitated by the NEWEST hospital building in Chicago and I called it perhaps the first acknowledgement of the feminine in architecture. My colleague Anthea Hartig said “The forms at Prentice are in the same instant structural and sculptural. This is truly the unity of art and function, the continuing discourse of artistic and engineering expressions.” The building’s seamless integration of art and science is manifest in concrete cantilevers that pushed the lobes 45 feet beyond their base, a feat that took one of the FIRST applications of computers to aid in an architectural design. And it’s gorgeous.
But rather than a seamless integration of art and science, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board today called it a conflict between art and science. This artificial dichotomy comes up a lot in our field of heritage conservation. I can recall a panel assembled by a chamber of commerce group in Oak Park to discuss the conflict between preservation and development, another artificial dichotomy. Preservation is development, and science is art. False dichotomies are the refuge of scoundrels who can only count the beans in one silo at a time and hacks who can’t fathom art or science but are somehow charged with making room for one or the other.

Let’s read between the lines of the Tribune editorial. First, we need to set up the artificial dichotomy: what will the building be replaced by? Here is what the editorial says:

“Northwestern says the new (research) facility will form a state-of-the-art research complex with the adjacent Lurie Medical Research Center and draw 700 jobs and more than $300 million in federal grant money for biomedical research.”

Oh, so the landmark is being replaced by a $300 million research facility employing 700 people? NO, THAT’S NOT WHAT THEY SAID. Here is what Northwestern officials said last week when they announced they wanted to demolish the landmark:

“The university has looked at various alternatives including reuse of the facility and actually taking it down, and at this point, the university’s plans are to take that building down and use that area for additional research facilities that would be constructed in the future,”

THE FUTURE. This is a land bank. It is not clear whether the 700 jobs and $300 million are what would be ON THE SITE or what will be ADDED to the $200 million Feinberg research building. The wordsmithing does not isolate the Prentice site. Plus, Northwestern said clearly a week ago it is land banking. They will need a nice eight-figure donor to get this thing going and they haven’t announced that. I’m betting parking lot at least until my kids graduate high school.

The Trib editorial also doubts that Landmarks Illinois’ re-use plan will be persuasive, because:

“Northwestern says the building, built in 1975, uses only about one-third of the square footage that could comfortably be built on the site. The ceilings are too low to allow for the venting, heating, and cooling infrastructure needed for a modern research facility.”

Hard to know where to start with this masterpiece of misdirection. First, it WASN’T built as a research facility, so of course it doesn’t have the venting, heating and cooling capabilities. Neither do Northwestern’s NEW hospitals, because they – like Prentice – were built as hospitals, not research facilities! The REAL reason (land bank) is the first sentence – the building doesn’t use up its zoning.

This is the age-old preservation battle in Chicago, whether it was real estate developers and urban planners in the 1960s and 1970s or hospitals and universities in the 90s and 00s, it is ALL ABOUT LAND VALUE. Northwestern is in Streeterville, land that wouldn’t even exist if not for a rum-running rustabout named Cap Streeter who ran aground there 130 years ago, and now it is in the shadow of the highest priced retail ground along the Great Lakes so they need to maximize every square inch of land and zoning and building they got and that equation does not leave room for aesthetics. This isn’t about jobs or medical research, it is about land value.

Finally, let’s let the Trib trip over its own logic in an economical three sentences near the end of the editorial.

“The old Prentice building, though, is not much more than a minor architectural gem. It doesn’t have city landmark protection. Marina City doesn’t have landmark status either, although it deserves it and (Alderman) Reilly is moving on that.”

Yow. Talk about givin’ poor old Socrates whiplash. It is a “minor” landmark (because of its age? A paragraph ago it was old???) without landmark status. Oh, so it doesn’t have status so it must not be worthy. But neither does Marina City (also by Goldberg), but it deserves it. I’m confused. If NOT having the status means it isn’t a landmark, but the alderman can “move” to landmark Marina City, why can’t he “move” on Prentice?

Alderman Reilly negotiated a 60-day delay, which is nothing if you don’t have a new building ready to go. But it does push the potential demolition closer to the opening of a major retrospective on the architecture of Bertrand Goldberg at the Art Institute of Chicago. Then we should get a more accurate idea of how “minor” this landmark is.

APRIL 22 UPDATE: Landmarks Illinois’ re-use plan actually develops three different scenarios for the building – including RESEARCH FACILITY for 800 researchers. Not too shabby. You can see the 16-page re-use study here. The amazing flexibility of Goldberg’s open floor plan (caused by those innovative AND BEAUTIFUL cantilevers) also makes the building easily adaptable to office or medical housing uses – there are no interior columns to worry about. Northwestern’s “lack of flexibility” argument is simply code for “maximize zoning envelope,” which would give something back to the city if the developer paid any real estate taxes. But they don’t. So, if and WHEN they at long last build that skyscraper, we get all of the congestion and shadows WITHOUT any economic benefit to the city – beyond the increment between 800 research jobs and however many more they can squeeze into their unplanned, undesigned and unfunded zoning envelope.

Sign the petition HERE.

JUNE 15 UPDATE: Prentice is named one of the 11 Most Endangered Sites in the U.S. by the National Trust for Historic Preservation! I made the announcement at the Save Prentice Rally today!

We made the announcement in front of a full vacant block. Next to another vacant lot half-a-block large. Would you like Northwestern to create a THIRD vacant block in Streeterville?

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Prentice Women’s Hospital April 2011

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