Architectural swap meet?

Northwestern would replace Bertrand Goldberg's iconic design with architectural 'marvel'

September 21, 2012

Bertrand Goldberg's 1975 Prentice Women's Hospital is a crowd-splitter of a building. Fans point to the building's complex engineering and singular look. Detractors find it ugly, a jarring contrast set against other modern architecture.

The old Prentice is an unforgettable building, involving a tall, clover-shaped structure perched atop a squat square base - a sort of space-age, modernist take on a merry-go-round.

But there's practicality behind the curious look of the building. Goldberg's design allowed for a central nurses' station, from which the hospital rooms radiated out like spokes on a wheel. Instead of traveling a long corridor to see patients, caregivers could assess the state of things at a glance around the circular space. Think of it as a kinder, gentler version of the panopticon, the structure forever made sinister by Michel Foucault.

Goldberg's vision anticipated current medical care, in which small groups of health professionals work in tight units to provide a range of services. The building also made it possible to combine the departments of obstetrics and gynecology with the Institute of Psychiatry (because motherhood and madness go hand in hand, right?!).

Prentice is one of eight hospitals built by Goldberg over a 20-year stretch, starting in the late 1960s. The first was also built in Illinois, out in Elgin, and it too apparently is in danger of disappearing.

What threatens Prentice isn't decay - at least not yet. Rather, Northwestern University wants to tear it down in order to build a new, state-of-the-art biomedical research facility. Northwestern says the current building won’t work as a research space. Meanwhile, preservationists (both local and national) say it can be repurposed.

The fight over Prentice is years long at this point. But lately things have ratcheted up. Each side has commissioned studies, developed talking points, and hired politically connected public relations firms. 

The latest move? This week Northwestern offered ... well, kind of a swap.

They've said if they do tear down the building, they'll replace it with another architecturally significant structure. When I spoke with Ron Naylor, who works in Facilities Management at Northwestern, he promised a building "the aesthetics of such that people are going to marvel at it."

So – how’d the idea of an architectural swap play with the people who want to protect the building? Jonathan Fine, the executive director of Preservation Chicago, was blunt: "They already have a world-class piece of architecture. It’s called the former Prentice Women’s Hospital."

Like others in the Save Prentice Coalition, he thinks Goldberg’s building can’t be replaced.  "This is truly a unique building," insists Fine. "It cannot be mistaken for any other building on the planet. That’s how important this building is, and it should be saved."

When I asked Naylor whether he thought Prentice was irreplaceable, he laughed, then added, "You could say that about a lot of buildings."

He says Northwestern will hold a design competition for a new building, and he's confident they'll find a successor to the Goldberg structure. He says the university did that for their forthcoming School of Music and Kellogg Management buildings, and those contests resulted in good architecture.

Fine counters that in Chicago, new construction has rarely measured up to what came before.

"If you look at the replacement for the Stock Exchange it’s a mediocre, terrible building," he said. "If you look at what replaced the Garrick Theater, another Adler and Sullivan masterpiece, it was a parking garage."

The one point on which both sides might agree, is that whatever building ends up near the corner of Huron and McClurg, people will notice. Says Naylor "It’s a significant building for the university, for the Streeterville community and the city of Chicago."

So – what about Chicagoans?  Do they think Goldberg’s building could be swapped out? Arts intern Rebecca Kruth took to the streets around Prentice and found a mix of views.

Jenna Duffecy was with a group of friends. She described Prentice as a "comic book mental hospital." Duffecy thinks a new structure would "fit in better with the look down here," adding "Northwestern usually presents as a fairly classy institution, and I appreciate the more modern buildings they usually have."

But Katherine Bookout sees value in Goldberg’s iconoclastic design:

"I mean Northwestern University has a beautiful campus but the other building is different," she said. "And different is good. There are things in Chicago that aren’t Northwestern and that’s a positive thing."

So what will happen to Prentice? All eyes on are on the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, which could prevent immediate demolition by ruling to grant the old hospital preliminary landmark status.

Though the commission has yet to take up the issue, both sides hope it will be on the agenda at the next meeting, Oct. 4.