Archive for July, 2012

Save Prentice Movement Grows

July 27, 2012

“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!

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Context and Culture

July 25, 2012

Context is everything in heritage conservation. As any of my former students could tell you, it is the key to determining the significance of a site.  Context includes issues like rarity, authenticity, historical impact, artistic value, etc.  If I have hundreds of walled cities in China – as once existed, only those that were exceptionally intact or beautiful or impactful would be considered significant.  If, however, I have only one walled city surviving, its significance immediately becomes global.PY walls 53sand I only have the one…

Context is also important in terms of culture. There is a Belgian village in Japan which is sort of like a cultural amusement park, but we can successfully argue that it does not have authenticity because, well, it ain’t Belgium. Any cultural significance it has is related to the how and why of creating it and visiting it. Yes, Disneyland has significance, but that significance – THE CONTEXT – is America in the 1950s and not how pirates lived in the Caribbean.

We can make similar arguments about what is consdered high and low culture, and here is where it gets interesting. I have often related the storyof how the group now known as Landmarks Illinois did an inventory of significant landmarks in Chicago in 1974 and did NOT include the Chicago Theatre (1921, Rapp & Rapp) because it was considered low culture, entertainment architecture – not serious like Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright or Daniel Burnham. Within six years the popular building was threatened, and Landmarks Illinois revised its high culture opinion. The context changed. The context of architectural history changed (as it always does over time), the context of popular engagement with landmarks changed as well.

Architecture? You want architecture? We got more architecture per linear foot than any of those fancy guys!

Part of this story also has to do with Chicago, which has a particular culture, especially in terms of architecture. Thanks to its singular legacy in the history of skyscrapers and modernism and fancy guys like Sullivan and Burnham and Wright, the average Chicagoan understands architecture as part of local culture. It is like a spectator sport, more so than any other city in North America. And despite the integration of the Chicago Theatre into architectural history, Chicago can be a bit snobby.

When artist Seward Johnson did a super-size sculptural version of the famous Art Institute of Chicago painting “American Gothic” by Chicago-trained Grant Wood, people generally liked it, and understood that it fit into the context of the city.

But then the same artist did an oversized version of Marilyn Monroe’s famed pose from the film The Seven Year Itch. Context was called into question: Monroe was not associated with the city, the film was set in New York, why was this here? It was certainly a popular tourist trap during its tenure, but most of the culture mavens decried it, mostly on the basis of its lack of context. (There was also a puritanical critique based on the reality that you could stand under..where?)

Keep your eyes on the architecture, buddy!”

Now, when Marilyn was taken away from North Michigan Avenue, she traveled to Palm Springs, and there she has been welcomed with open arms and unbridled enthusiasm. And I get it. Palm Springs is about the 1950s modernism that formed the context of the Seven Year Itch, indeed the context of Marilyn Monroe as a pop culture icon. Palm Springs is all about fabulousness, and what could be more fabulous than a 26-foot high Marilyn Monroe in her prime upswept skirt form? It may sound heretical, but this is to Palm Springs what David is to Florence: this sculpture conveys the spirit of the place. That is not snarky or critical, but simply accurate. Marilyn was a bit lost in Chicago, not as lost as a skyscraper in the Sahara or a Dreadnaught in the Danube, but still a little lost. She is totally at home in Palm Springs, beloved and appropriate. She is an icon and emblem of the genuine local culture. The context enhances the sculpture.

She even looks happier. Courtesy Gregg Felsen, Joe Enos and everyone at Forever Marilyn Palm Springs
I stress again, this is not a value judgement in terms of ranking one place over another, or even about high culture versus low culture. It is about place-specific culture and the appropriateness of art, or interpretation, to its specific site. This is a vital understanding in the heritage conservation field, where no solution is universal.

Selling Out or Keeping It Real?

July 4, 2012

An article in the Washington Post yesterday described the economic challenges facing great European landmarks and how many are turning to corporate sponsorships and licensing deals to help defray the costs of maintaining ancient buildings.  This practice in turn has caused criticism from those who feel it is wrong to “sell” your collective heritage.

I began this blog a little less than seven years ago and in one of my early posts (prior to the invention of photography, apparently) I confessed my own apostasy in the case of the River Forest Women’s Club, a private club that was sold to a private owner who converted it into an award-winning home protected by preservation easements and powered by green technology.  (It is now for sale, if you are interested)

The controversy at that time was that the building was perceived as a public landmark, in part because the local Park District had operated it for paid public programming for three years.  But the public entity – the Park District – wanted to demolish the building, and did not have the resources to rehabilitate it following decades of deferred maintenance.

Should landmarks – physical elements of our collective heritage – be privatized?  The question is faulty on the face because it panders to the false idea that public and private are separate realms.  This ideational construct is not found, to my knowledge, in thousands of years of human history.  While some entities and enterprises are construed as public or private, their relationships and interpenetrations in the political economy of the real world are manifold.

There are obvious examples of this public-private symbiosis: bailouts of the banking and auto industries under Bush and Obama; financing of private railroads by 19th century land grants; massive municipal subsidies to private sports teams; the colossal public infrastructural support that made suburbs possible.  Yet still we prize this permeable distinction.

Clearly some standards are needed…

To me, the challenge in conserving our heritage, in interpreting it and insuring its value to our own and future generations is the challenge of sustainability:  how do you keep something vital, productive and relevant over time.

The answer to this question comes not simply from those with expertise in building materials, technologies, or architecture: nor simply from those who understand economics, planning and programming.  Every act of conservation, like every enterprise – succeeds or fails based on its successful balancing of all these factors and more.  It takes a village.

The question is not whether you put a billboard up on scaffolding, or allow a watch company to license the image of your landmark, or rent out your house museum to a TV production company for three days, but what the return on those actions is in terms of long-term sustainability of site, message, and ongoing public involvement.  If I make a public site inaccessible to the general public by renting it out two days a week to private entities, but the return on those two days ensures the long-term survival of the site – and its continued public access five days a week – I think I have a good deal.  This is a TV costume drama being shot in one of the courtyard house museums in East Lotus Village (Dong Lian Hua) in the Weishan Heritage Valley last month:

Our National Trust property in Monterey – Cooper-Molera Adobe – was once a commercial structure appended to a house.  It will be again, and the leasing to commercial interests will not only sustain the building – it will ENHANCE its message and interpretation because it will again function as it did originally.

At Mount Vernon they rebuilt and reopened the distillery that George Washington had built there.  I suppose Ann Pamela Cunningham, who spearheaded the effort to save Mount Vernon in the 1850s might have objected because her goal was to save Washington’s home from the onset of “manufactories”.  In terms of historic context, she was wrong, because in fact George Washington HAD a manufactory at Mount Vernon and was at one time the largest distiller in the United States.

But Ann Pamela promoted an ideological purism that sought to venerate landmarks as holy shrines.  Because we value the things we share we tend to make them sacred and want to protect them from the impulsiveness of markets or the vagaries of politics.  But any student of history can show how even the most sacred constructions had a vital economic role.  Moneychangers have ever been in the temple.

Gothic cathedrals were houses of worship to be sure, but they also had a place in important business transactions and documents BECAUSE they were public, communal places.  Khmer kings built temples to Shiva and Vishnu for worship to be sure, but also to shift commercial exchange to the environs of their new temple.   Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries of England less for religious belief and more because they had tons of money and commercial agriculture.

Perhaps there is utility in making our communal property a little more sacred than our private property.  A landmark is different – it contains stories of a community’s shared past.  It IS more important.  But importance and significance do not require religious asceticism.  A site can be significant AND productive.

That is the basic message of the Global Heritage Fund, since Monday my new employer and one of the few entities that recognizes heritage conservation as a vital community and economic development strategy.  Our mission is to use some of the world’s greatest heritage sites as keys to poverty alleviation, education and economic growth in developing countries.  Join us.