“But just as a patient expects his doctor to pull out all stops in search of a cure, Northwestern must pursue every avenue before daring to raze one of Chicago’s architectural and engineering treasures.
We don’t think they’re trying hard enough. Surely, there’s a solution.”
That is from an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times yesterday, one of several actions that have ramped up the pressure on Northwestern University to explain why it needs to demolish Bertrand Goldberg’s pathbreaking 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital, which I have been writing about here for over two years. The first building to use computers in aid of its design, Prentice is a song, a crescendo of 45-foot concrete cantilevers twirling into a quatrefoil of cylindrical skin delicately punched with ovals, a bold sculpture on a base that makes the regular buildings around it look dull-witted.
The architecture geeks have loved this building for a while, and of course I announced its ascension to the National Trust Eleven Most Endangered List a little over a year ago.
Then recently a posse of high profile architects, from Jeanne Gang to Frank Gehry joined the chorus. Then today Landmarks Illinois President Bonnie McDonald and Zurich Esposito of the AIA had an Op-Ed piece in the Chicago Tribune. As they say “In commissioning its new building for obstetrics, Northwestern Memorial Hospital sought to incorporate new ideas about women and childbirth. Goldberg’s design took these ideas and ran with them. The building’s floor plan made a family-oriented childbirth experience possible; fathers could be present for labor and delivery. In addition, the floor plan allowed nurses to be closer to patient rooms and have better lines of sight, improving women’s care.”
This social history is embedded in the building quite literally. And, as I pointed out two years ago, it is still cutting-edge: Bus kiosks in Chicago advertise the same cloverleaf plan used by the latest 2012 hospital building on the west side. What is old is new again.
Yes, but the building can’t be re-used, they say. Then how come Landmarks Illinois put together THREE DIFFERENT re-use scenarios for the building? Re-use requires more thinking and design skill, but why is that bad?
Heck, even if you don’t give a fig about architecture, why would anyone want ANOTHER VACANT LOT in what is rapidly becoming a Gobi Desert off North Michigan Avenue? Plus, there is NOTHING green about kicking up tons of dust dismantling a perfectly serviceable building, burning acres of gas trucking it 100 miles to a landfill, and then kicking up more dust and trees and gravel and sand and gasoline and uranium to make a new one.
I even spent the year scouting other locations for Northwestern, like this one that provides the same property tax revenue to the City of Chicago.
The problem for Northwestern is that they took a position that they could take as an 800-pound gorilla with huge economic and political clout. But they have been faced with intelligent arguments about the significance of the building, re-use and sustainable urbanism and they have not responded intelligently. Time to stop being a gorilla, guys.
AUGUST 15 UPDATE
The other shoe has finally fallen. Almost 20 years ago I noticed that the “bad guys” in preservation battles had stopped being real estate developers, in part because so many of them recognized the marketing and branding value of old buildings, and some of them had figured out how to make the various tax benefits work. The bad guys, by the early 90s, were increasingly not-for-profit institutions, especially those that needed land to maintain their fundraising – like universities and hospitals. So, while we might laud the Sun-Times (while slamming the Trib – goodbye subscription!) and the architects who joined Frank Gehry, and the great Paul Goldberger, let’s raise a toast to developer Paul Beitler, who just came out in favor of saving Prentice.
Northwestern is holding tight and pushing out its magical jobs and investment numbers. And claiming the building is obsolete. Get it straight: this is not about obsolescence. It isn’t even about jobs and investment (this is not the only vacant block in the immediate vicinity, much less the neighborhood or city). It is about more profits to a not-for-profit that is worth $7 billion dollars.
No wonder they think they always get their way.
August 26 Update: Great article from Cheryl Kent today.
August 27 Update: Crain’s Chicago Business Editorial says NO to Northwestern’s demolition plan, calls them out for phoning it in….
August 28 Update: Deanna Isaacs in the Reader also calls out Northwestern for their addled response/justification. Why does someone with $7 billion play dimestore PR?
September 18 UPDATE: Now, like four years later, Northwestern decides to announce a design competition for its unfunded, unplanned, supposed research center, as reported in the Tribune today. Meanwhile, the last two famous architects who hadn;t yet joined the Save Prentice Movement signed up – Renzo Piano and Kevin Roche. At the risk of repeating myself a month later, how does one of the richest (non-profit) corporations in the state excuse such a lame, unprepared, unreasoned and transparently facetious public relations strategy?
It really isn’t fair. On the one side you have architects, urbanists, and re-use studies, and on the other side you have a schoolyard bully whose best attempt to verbalize his rage comes out as a whining “Unh-Unh!!”
HALLOWEEN 2012: AND THE BULLY WINS!
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has sided with Northwestern and demolition. So that does it. I will give the Mayor $5 for every job created on that site prior to his next election, not including demolition and landscaping.
You should see the landscaping they are planning for the site!!! It. is. SO. GREAT!