It feels like a familiar story: a hotly debated competition for an iconic building, a stirring of opinion and speculation, the public waiting with bated breath for what will rise from the gaping emptiness. Then, completion: and with that, a sort of denouement to the building process. We either rejoice and marvel at the beautiful new jewel for the city, or settle into a numb disappointment for what could have been.
A timely example of the latter fate is the recent completion of 1 World Trade Center. Quite possibly one of the most anticipated build projects in New York, if not nationally, the building was to be an emblem of resilience for the city and for the US. The project could advance what Battery Park City had started: bringing the human scale of the city back in Lower Manhattan, and introducing culture and street life in a place that had long been devoid of it. But alas, it had not: such an idea was “brushed aside” by commercial interests, a force that led to “up-side down priorities,” with the economic greatly overpowering the civic.1 The result of much heated public debate: an office park plaza scheme, and the tall glass office tower that is 1 World Trade, though it looks like it could be anywhere else. The reminder was clear: buildings represent a fundamental part of the cultural production of cities. Their real estate value should not overshadow their cultural contribution and commitment to the City, especially those involving such civic ambition or invaluable collective memory.
While that tower was nearing completion in New York, another was being destroyed in Chicago. The Prentice Women’s Hospital, built in 1975 and designed by renowned architect Bertrand Goldberg in the near-north neighborhood of Streeterville, was nearing complete demolition by September 2014. Even though the scale and context of the World Trade Center and Prentice are entirely different, in many ways the heart of the controversy was the same–an unabashed overriding of civic concerns for those of a small group of appointed decision-makers. The struggle was in effect an introversion of what happened in New York. Yes, there was healthy debate, but it was too limited, opaque, biased and too late. Anticipation of constructing the desirable new was replaced with the imminent allegory of defending something plagued with the sheen of the unwanted.
Despite the extraordinary campaign “Save Prentice” spearheaded by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the superficial evaluation of reuse proposals by the City of Chicago2 and the economic argument put forward by Northwestern University seemed to trump all else. A lack of imagination was no excuse: an open competition for proposals on how to reuse and adapt the building for twenty-first century use drew innovative ideas from over eighty architects and support from a dozen Pritzker Prize winners. Yet Northwestern didn’t budge, calling it “not productive” to review proposals for a building they had been planning to demolish for ten years.3 The University just “closed its eyes to free ideas,”4 closed their doors to any reasonable discussion for reuse of the building, and foremost it failed as an educational institution to preserve and contribute with a valuable piece of Chicago’s built heritage.
The defensive kind of debate reveals deep flaws, if not jarring breaches in our current model of preservation. How can a model reconcile the twin interests in tension that are ever present in cities: the economic and the civic, the private and the public, and the reverence for heritage while lusting for the new? And how might we bring the same heady, curious passion that a public might have for new construction to make preservation less a reactive struggle, and more of a proactive conversation?
This piece is a discussion of the uniquely innovative design of Prentice Women’s Hospital, a review and lessons learned about the failed efforts to preserve it, and a call for action for developing a new framework around a more holistic and active role within the cultural production of cities that is inherently related to the built environment.
II. The Legacy of Function
Trained in both in architecture and engineering, Goldberg developed a strong social-oriented commitment to improve people’s quality of life through design throughout his entire career. With a combination of academic training early at Harvard in Cambridge, the Bauhaus in Dessau and Berlin, and later at the Armour Institute in Chicago, Goldberg developed an ambitious formal design aesthetic and sensitive humanistic approach to design.
Goldberg worked closely with Mies van der Rohe, one of the main figures of architecture modernism and was highly influenced by his sculptural approach to building details and thoughtfulness within his design process. Nevertheless, his interests mainly aligned with Mies’ in the possibilities of mass production and in the idea that architecture could fundamentally alter the ways a society lives.5 Goldberg’s exceptional intellectual independence from his mentor and his particular notion of positive space strongly influenced his formal approach to shaping buildings. His own research and experience led him ultimately to conclude that the circle–not the square that strongly defines Mies’s projects–was the best shape on which to base architectural form.6 Prentice was one of the most remarkable project opportunities to prove this.
Until the mid-twentieth century, the design of hospitals had been relegated to banal standards that addressed quantity before quality. Bertrand Goldberg designed eight major hospitals in the United States over the course of his career, with Prentice occurring right in the middle of that number, and almost parallel to other two.7 With Prentice, Goldberg was able to stress test his formal conclusions and synthesize his thinking and experience with previous hospital designs. Prentice’s story amongst his other healthcare designs is unique as a commission in two ways: it inspired a new patient-centered approach and it employed the use of new technology to advance his spatial agenda in an unprecedented manner.
Patient-Centered Care Approach
The Chicago Maternity Center (CMC), Northwestern Memorial Hospital (NMH), and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University Medical School consolidated their resources, knowledge and services to create a new kind of medical center that combined cutting edge technology, groundbreaking medical research, and patient-focused care.8 The timing of this project was at the forefront a progressive cultural movement of the mid-1960s that led to increase in healthcare design a more patient-centered approach.9 This latter aspect was relevant to Goldberg’s work since he already had been charged formerly with creating plans to promote the physician-patient relationship at the Affiliated Hospital Center in Boston.10
One of the most exciting features of the new hospital was the introduction of an approach to obstetrics that Northwestern Memorial Hospital (NMH) dubbed Family-Centered-Maternity Care. Prentice’s promotional materials boasted “having a baby at Prentices is—as far as possible—a family event”. The list of services offered at Prentice illustrates the hospital’s progressive attitude towards women’s choice, reproductive rights, mental healthcare, and cutting edge research.11
Goldberg carefully analyzed the nurse-patient relationship through his many healthcare projects. He understood the importance of balancing the patient’s privacy with better visibility and care of patients, and developed as a key design principle spatial clusters organized as centripetal or radial that allowed nurses equidistant access to patients.12 The form-making process was inherently integrated with his understanding of the psychology of spaces.13
Legibility and Building Organization
Innovation is intrinsically linked to flexibility. Goldberg recognized this relationship constantly and worked with two approaches: flexibility of floor space (column-free where possible) to accommodate patient-oriented functions, and flexibility of layout (uniform structural grid) for service and administrative spaces. Although a strong advocate for flexible design, he had reservations about placing absolute primacy on flexibility in hospital planning, noting that is “relatively impossible to provide an ideal, “tight”, economical solution for an specific task at hand while at the same time also providing unlimited flexibility.”14
Legibility was also a main achievement of Prentice’s design, and a visual way in which the users could potentially identify and navigate the distinct functions of the hospital. By using different building forms for the different main programs, Goldberg emphasized a way to humanize how hospital programs are conveyed to patients and staff. His design solution at Prentice: a custom-designed facility that balanced flexibility with humanity. Therefore, he argued that the facility was not one, but two buildings: a rectangular five-story base of reinforced concrete post and beam construction below a seven-story bed tower of reinforced poured concrete in a distinctive quatrefoil shape.15 Finally, in order to achieve the so-called flexibility that Goldberg pursued for Prentice, the quatrefoil bed tower exterior shell was cantilevered from the core, providing maximum plan flexibility below.16
Structural, Geometrical, and Technological Innovation
Goldberg had a strong formal and spatial sense that drove both his pursuit of structural innovation and exploration of new programmatic solutions. By the time he began to work on Prentice, Goldberg had already spent almost two decades searching for ever-more-daring building shapes.17 Like many other engineers and architects through history, he was attracted to concrete, with its remarkable aesthetic and structural capabilities. The elegant arches of the quatrefoil tower that cantilevered 48 feet at Prentice were not only an aesthetic but also a functional statement on structural possibility.
The tower at Prentice consists of four partial circles or “pods” interconnected in plan and intersecting arches at the center core. The arches are cantilevered from the core, providing support service for all four of those resulting pods.18 The upper body of the tower is a composite structure: a concrete structural self-supporting load-bearing exterior shell that is also partially “hanging” from the central cores. This highly complex solution makes more efficient use of material while making the building stable.19
With this integrated and experimental approach to structural design, there was no room for error. Nothing like it had ever been undertaken, and it required meticulous and copious engineering calculation. A computational group within BGA had emerged during the late sixties, but it wasn’t until the early 1970s that Goldberg established the programming division as a subsidiary company of BGA called Computer Service, Incorporated (CSI). BGA’s modeling program was able to process structural calculations and produce three-dimensional drawing without the hand of an architect, and was light years ahead of the common, flat electronic drawing machines that many architecture firms had used until the 1990s.20
The methods that Goldberg developed in the process of designing Prentice are now commonplace in architectural practice. Although his life-long interests in computers and structural innovation, Prentice is especially significant within the context of his career because is was the first time that he used computer modeling in structural analysis and the first time that he used the Finite Element Method.21 Based on grid analysis, the method enabled a more accurate understanding of how the total structure functioned and was crucial for complex shell forms. And even though the method had been developed since the 1940s, it was not until the 1960s and the advent of high-speed digital computing that the extensive amount of calculations required could be processed and used as part of the building design process.
Goldberg’s innovations in concrete structure can be seen by a review of three of his Chicago buildings, which provides a clear narrative on the evolution of his approaches: Marina City (core and columns), Prentice (core and shell), and Hilliard Homes (only shell). Although it is the smallest of the three, Prentice represents the most daring of structural solutions.
III. Legacy or Benefactor?
Beyond discussing the legacy of the building’s significant aspects, we arrive on the question of the word “legacy” itself. Legacy connotes the obsolete, the inherited, the delegated object that is given against our will. Might there be a more enlightened way to think about the effects of the building, one in which we can compare it against other cultural bodies of work? If buildings like Prentice act as “elders” that newer buildings and architects can learn from, are they not also actively supporting the current process of cultural production as “benefactors”? Prentice represented both risk and hope at a time of social change, but also a thoughtful approach of design values to elevate the experience of healthcare services. The values around human-centered functions remain relevant, yet the current scales of need and additional criterion have also increased the complexity to the way health-oriented projects are developed.
The design approach for Prentice remains relevant and is used as both inspiration and reference for new projects, such as Rush Medical Center in Chicago. The principles of a decentralized organization of community groups and a formal legibility of large-scale projects still confer us with wisdom and inspiration going forward. Prentice acts as a mark of resolution of a long trajectory of invention. It should be understood not as variations on a standard theme, but rather as the culmination of a design ethos that sought to transform too-often cold and banal models for hospitals into villages for healing.22
Myriad national and international articles acknowledged and celebrated Prentice’s design both during its construction process and after it started operations. GBA was acclaimed with everything from a prize for structural innovation granted by Engineering News-Record magazine to being on the cover of Healthcare magazine. Markedly, Prentice wasn’t just drawing notice from within the architecture world—it was sparking the imagination of healthcare professionals, engineers, and most importantly, patients.
Prentice is part of a wider narrative that is central to the history of Chicago architecture of avant-garde design and cutting edge structural engineering achievement.23 It is also part of a broader thematic body of work, being one of Goldberg’s hospitals, which share a target that is not regional nor influenced by economics; the target is simply taking care of health.”24 Current and future designers continue to learn from these projects; the design and broader community continues to being inspired by the values of collaboration, innovation, and social responsiveness that drove projects such as Prentice.
IV. A New Framework for Cultural Production of Cities
The demolition of Prentice represents a deep failure in the way we as a public and as a City contend with the concept of preservation. Let us learn from failure. The only counter to something so disheartening as the leveling of an iconic building is to, of course, build something new: a new model, a framework for the cultural production of cities that reframes the act of preserving as one of producing. A new model where preserving symbolic assets implies added value, not an added burden. A new model where those in charge of overseeing the cultural assets of the City are accountable for their decisions. A new model that flexibly responds to the level of importance of the piece under discussion. A model that allocates seats at the decision-making table to those who have a legitimate expertise. We propose the following elements as a build on current ideas of preservation, with the hope that they stir the public with the same amount of passion for a building being saved as for a building being erected.
The landmarking process was fraught with unprecedented drama. A process that seemed so clear at the onset became increasingly murky through political chess playing and manipulation. To qualify as a landmark, the City must first review a landmark nomination report, which assesses the building against seven criteria. The report is submitted as part of a two-stage process, the first stage being a vote on qualifications, and the second as a final vote after discussions and negotiations with the building owner regarding economic impact.
For Prentice, the inconsistencies and shortcuts allowed in the process are at once remarkable and ridiculous. The landmark hearing took place after repeated delays on November 1, 2012. Notably, Mayor Emanuel wrote an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune in support of Northwestern’s demolition plans just the day before. In one of the most unusual proceedings in Chicago Landmarks Commission history, the vote after the first phase was a unanimous 9-0 in favor of qualification, only to have it rescinded a few hours later.25 Normally, the first vote would have granted preliminary landmark status for a year while the Department of Housing and Economic Development (DHED) researched whether there was an economic case for permanent designation. However, the second vote came just 2 hours and 21 minutes later, after DHED released a report at the same meeting alleging that preserving Prentice would harm the University’s ability to build a biomedical research facility on the site. While the process ultimately ran its course, this particular hearing was deemed unlawful, with Judge Neil Cohen of the Cook County Circuit Cook calling the proceedings arbitrary and nontransparent.26
Myriad questions still remain as to why and how the process was subjectively compromised in the case of Prentice. In a time when Chicago is leading the charge for open government data, how might processes, evidence, and arguments become more transparent?
New Values, New Criteria
The values around preservation are inherent in the criteria a landmarks commission holds. In the report reviewing the building against seven criteria, Prentice was seen as having qualified as four of the seven criteria (only two were needed), listed below in bold:
1. Value as an example of City, State, or National heritage
2. Location a site of a significant historic event
3. Identification with a significant person
4. Exemplary architecture
5. Work of a significant architect or designer
6. Representation of a significant theme
7. A unique or distinctive visual feature
There are two distinct recommendations here. First, the criteria must hold some weight against the economic argument, where it currently does not. Despite having satisfied much more criteria than it needed to, Prentice was still not given legitimate preliminary landmark status. Second, we must tease apart the inherent values of preservation and ask what’s missing. It is easy to protect what is old and agreeably beautiful, but how might criteria reach beyond these values to encompass ideas of innovation and inventiveness?
Public Oversight and Accountability
The parable of Prentice calls into question the culture of decision making at the highest levels of our cities. If not the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to be our stewards to safeguard the City of Chicago’s historic and cultural heritage (as outlined in the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance), then who else?27 One might wonder why, out of a nine-person committee, only one of the members has a background in architecture, given that the commission’s mission has ostensibly everything to do with architecture (Emanuel had replaced four members, two of which were architects, by a chef, an obstetrician, and two career-politicians the year before).28 And the one voice who was in favor of Prentice through both votes resigned shortly after the hearing. These events begin surface where the true power lies in the equation—and casts a disturbing light on the lack of it in the context of this commission. How might we rethink the qualifications for those appointed to the commission, and hold them accountable for the power they supposedly wield?
Balancing the Equation—A Real Seat at the Table
If we were to weigh the copious arguments, reuse proposals, and letters of support from the public against those of each of the Commission members, we would find the arguments from the Commission falling dreadfully short. We’d hope to find a satisfactory jury-like conclusion, a story based on evidence, or a verdict that resolves the tensions present: but none of this exists.
To balance the power equation surrounding Prentice, we would have hoped that the public arguments would have had a seat at the table, and at the jury. We needed an impartial body, exhibits of evidence, and a timely, well-reasoned review of both sides of the argument. Instead, keeping with the courtroom analogy, the jury was rigged, and the public never had a real seat at the table. How might we return to a balance of power by having the right expertise and arguments in the room—especially when the toughest decisions must be made?
A Future-Facing Perspective
Finally, we need a long-term view that sees cultural production as a promise for future generations as opposed to those stuck in the past. Instead of a simple yes or no solution to the landmarking process, what might a longer-term, fluid exploration of what’s best for both parties at stake look like? For example, the Commission never inquired into Northwestern’s master plan, and whether such a thing even existed (it didn’t)—a seemingly glaring error that would have heavily informed options for preservation. In this case, numb disappointment and a short-term view trumped healthy debate that could have led to a win-win result.
Let us move beyond a simple set of black-and-white conclusions and a static set of rules that leaves only two camps: those who are stuck in the past, and those blindly drawn to the future. For Prentice could have been the champion of something else: it could have been a time when the city renewed itself through creative reuse, or when innovation meant experimentation with existing constraints instead of starting anew. In that time, the future was here, and it was just a matter of telling the story in a way that everyone could understand.
Photographs by David Schalliol provided courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.