For years Northwestern University has been trying to rid themselves of the Prentice Women’s Hospital, Bertrand Goldberg’s brutalist flower located on the university’s downtown Medical Campus. To say that Prentice presents a unique hospital configuration or that the legacy of brutalist icons such Marcel Breuer, Goldberg, or Paul Rudolph have weathered unfavorably is putting it mildly. Nonetheless, a litany of prominent architects and academics from across the country have written in support of the hospital. That the debate over the hospital’s future has been protracted over nearly a half-decade is telling not only of Goldberg’s idiosyncratic appeal, but the extent to which the legacies of Late- and Post-modernism stand to be judged on the all-or-nothing basis of the contemporary historic preservation model.
The case for Goldberg’s hospital rests on two points: First, that Goldberg is a seminal figure in the city’s architectural history whose production over four decades has been influential to both his contemporaries and succeeding generations of architects. That Frank Gehry claims Goldberg among his influences is to be able to connect Goldberg’s form of organic brutalism with the contemporary practices in parametric design through a short a series of historical dots. Prentice should also be saved from the wrecking ball, the petitioners claim, as a precautionary measure against its unknown but likely marginal replacement. As Gehry told the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin, “I’m always afraid that when something original is torn down, it’s usually not replaced with an equal.”
Gehry, with whom I rarely agree on anything, may have a point. Northwestern’s record of architectural commissions is less than stellar. Holabird & Root’s 1984 addition to the law school on Lake Shore Drive is a darkly depressing piece of corporate banality, while the more recent Lurie Children’s Hospital‘s attempt at light-heartedness comes off as an incoherent jumble. Certainly a university that has found a place in their heart, or at least their wallet, to commission such vapid enclosures could also find space for an existing structure that stakes a claim to higher architectural ambitions.
This isn’t to suggest that Goldberg’s hospital isn’t beyond revision, and I have very little patience for the intransigence of preservation Luddites. Safeguarding Prentice from demolition should not be confused with sanctioning an architectural embalming for the sake of treating a building as a cultural artifact frozen in time (in this case, circa 1975). If architecture, as both a profession and a discipline, has any desire to build an appreciation for it’s core merits within the broader public, it needs to abandon the pretense that its artistry is a discrete and inflexible work. Further, the notion that an architectural legacy, especially of a practitioner whose contributions were as geographically concentrated as Goldberg’s, is reliant upon the faithful preservation of every minor work seems misplaced. In the case of the Prentice this is particularly true, since Goldberg’s Marina City Towers sit just around the corner.
All of this is to suggest that while I favor saving Prentice from the wrecking ball, both as a principled attitude toward existing buildings but also, in the case of the hospital, on the basis of its architectural merits, I find no reason to sentimentalize ‘70s brutalism to the point subjecting both its inhabitants and the public to its less gratifying characteristics in homage to Goldberg’s supposed genius (this, from someone who appreciates his work). This, of course, is matter of preference, but given the major public objection to the building’s exterior appeal, or lack thereof (“it looks like a prison”), and Prentice’s secondary status in Goldberg’s oeuvre, greater leniency should be allowed for any potential retrofit.
Certainly, some would take issue what might be perceived as the tidying of Bertrand’s more unseemly qualities, palpable evidence of the ongoing trend in which urbanity and grit are being cleansed from the city under a veneer of bright colors and thin design. To them I respond: Meh. Given the choice between capitulating to the broad public distaste for concrete austerity and my own personal enjoyment of the city’s shadowy crevasses, I will gladly accept a compromise. As the next wave of preservation battles increasingly involve works from the Late- and Post-Modernist period, it is important that an earnest dialogue emerge to determine appropriate modes of retrofitting, re-using, or otherwise conserving these structure's most salient aspects without locking them into a hermetic urban artificiality. There are, quite simply, not enough buildings from this period that merit preservation.
This post originally appeared at tuppence for the birds.