Posts Tagged ‘Prentice Hospital’

Crunch Time on Prentice

June 1, 2011

Tomorrow, June 2, 2011, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks will consider preliminary designation of Prentice Women’s Hospital as a Chicago Landmark. This is the result of a joint efforts by Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (which used a photo of Prentice on its new Financial Assistance publication!) to give the building its day in court, or in the words of Landmarks Illinois Advocacy Director Lisa DiChiera “This building is just too high-profile to let it slip away without a thorough, transparent review of its landmark eligibility.”

It does not look good. Northwestern Hospital has so much clout that the new Mayor (see last post for what he could have done) and even the Alderman – who asked for a 60-day delay on demolition, and even two of the three architects who developed a comprehensive re-use study for the old (1975 is old?) hospital kept their names off of it. This is a lot of clout. The ability to keep this much of the most valuable acreage between Manhattan and San Francisco off of the tax rolls and have the city thank you for it is A LOT of clout.

Not only that, but despite the architectural importance of the building – by Chicago icon Bertrand Goldberg, a singular modernist, a veteran of Mies’ Bauhaus who nonetheless charted a different path both formally and theoretically. This building is one of the first to use computers in the design, to get that stunning 15m-concrete cantilever without breaking the beautiful curving lines. It is like a flower. Like a flower.

There is a generation that does not “get” this architecture, that is concerned that it is only 36 years old, even though that is EXACTLY the age of 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive (Mies van der Rohe) when the Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted preliminary determination of eligibility.

The generation that does not “get” it is unfortunately represented in large numbers in the immediate neighborhood, and I am not talking about inpatients but the local neighborhood group, which did NOT ask for its preservation. They are called SOAR (Streeterville Organization of Active Residents) and I am a little surprised because they STOOD WITH US 22 years ago to save the John Hancock Building, which was only 21 years old at the time.


One of the awful ironies of this situation is that NOTHING is going to be put there if Northwestern gets it way and demolishes the building. I don’t know that it will sit vacant for 19 YEARS like Block 37 did, but I can pretty much guarantee a half dozen. They are planning a green, fenced space. No access, no parking. I suppose that turns down the volume on the lost tax revenue issue. Huge net loss for the neighborhood, though.

Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune has been great on this issue, as have all three preservation organizations involved. We have gotten support from all around the country, and many are saying that this will be a watershed for the preservation of mid-century Modernism. Maybe now everyone will “get” it, the same way they “got” the Prairie School when the Robie House was saved in 1957, the same was they “got” Victorian architecture when the Jefferson Market Courthouse was preserved in 1967, the same way they “got” vernacular historic districts when Old Town was landmarked in 1977, the same way they “got” the church preservation issue when Holy Family and St. Mary of the Angels were threatened in 1987, the same way they “got” the need for local landmark protection when City Council designated 26 landmarks in 1997, the same way they “got” sustainability as the ultimate preservation modality in 2007.

Some may not “get” the beauty, historical value and urbanistic appeal of this building today. but pretty much everyone will within a decade. I have seen it happen many, many times before, as the above litany illustrates. I am watching the same thing unfold here.

And if it is lost, it will be important to put down the names of those who demolished it and save those names for posterity.

The Moving Finger writes.

WHAT HAPPENED JUNE 2: Northwestern went into talks with the City and promised not to apply for a demolition permit in exchange for the talks, and no preliminary determination from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

JUNE 15 UPDATE: Prentice is named one of the 11 Most Endangered Sites in the U.S. by the National Trust for Historic Preservation! I made the announcement at the Save Prentice Rally today!

We made the announcement in front of a full vacant block. Next to another vacant lot half-a-block large. Would you like Northwestern to create a THIRD vacant block in Streeterville?

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.

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Of Boots and Buildings: Musings on Modernity

February 4, 2011

In three weeks I will be speaking at Modernism Week in Palm Springs; my last post “What Is Modern” got a ton of hits; and I have just finished a draft of the Barry Byrne book following my JSAH article (still free during February 2011 online) “Barry Byrne: Expressing the Modern in 1920s Europe” so I have been thinking about Modernism a lot. Barry Byrne wrote a letter to Lionel Feininger at the Bauhaus in the mid-1920s disparaging the term, and he was right: What does “Modern” mean, especially now that it is overwith and reborn as a nostalgic style courtesy of Mad Men and Dwell magazine?

a Barry Byrne church in Pierre, SD Photo by Katherine Shaughnessy

So I have been trying to figure our another term for it, like “20th Century” or “Late Industrial” but none are adequate and we do have to recall that Barry Byrne and all of his friends like Mies and Oud and Corbu were actively proselytizing “modern” whatever the heck it was. It was a movement. It certainly lasted two-thirds of the 20th century and it had some formal consistencies like machined finishes and ornamental abstraction or negation, but as my article noted, there were lots of different modernisms from the revolutionary asceticism of Loos to the painterly formalism of Corbu, the expressive romanticism of Mendelsohn, and the reborn classicism of Mies.

or Dudok’s EuroPrairie

So Felicity has been thinking about boots and last night I looked at the latest pair of boots and they looked a little Emma Peel and a little English riding but mostly they were just a combination of very deft lines and contours. And they lacked ornament, unlike the ones with stitching along the sole or the various ones with buckles near the upper calf and it occurred to me that there is an attempt in many times and places to achieve aesthetic beauty without ornament, simply by skillful disposition of lines and forms and scale and proportion.

In ancient architectural terms I am leaving commoditas and utilitas aside here to focus on venustas and it seems a big piece of the modernist project was finding the simplest, sharpest lines between creation and venustas. Now we know from Mies that simplicity often took a hell of a lot of work, like the effort to polish away the ship welds that keep the Farnsworth House afloat.


Mies’ aesthetic was classicizing and quite different from his onetime student Bertrand Goldberg, who joined Felix Candela and other 1960s expressionists to find beauty in the potential of curving concrete structural systems. His Prentice Women’s Hospital – the current preservation cause in Chicago – is a brilliant example of beauty united with parabolic concrete vaults that grant a 45-foot (15m) cantilever.

Preservation Chicago

Now, normally we consider Mies to be of one modernist tradition and Goldberg of another, but it doesn’t matter whether the line is curving or straight – both are seeking expression through an economy of form, without applied ornament, not unlike that pair of boots, which is seductive without being explicit about it. No neon needed.

Einsteinturm, Photograph by Rolf Achilles

But what about the ornamental modernists, like Barry Byrne? In my book I note that he used ornament as an extension of the wall plane. At St. Thomas Apostle the exterior brick wall serrates and folds at the corners, expressing itself in the material alone, a la Mies, but at the top Alfonso Iannelli’s ornament creates a dramatic and perhaps slightly precious fringe at the skyline, but it reads I think as an extension of the wall.

Photograph copyright Felicity Rich, 2006

But Loos actually threw us off when he said ornament was crime. When I tour downtown Chicago, I always note the 1889 Monadnock Building, the first sculpturally modern building without ornament. And across the street is Mies’ Federal Center, which is covered in ornament.


Huh? you say – Mies doesn’t use ornament! Of course he does, but it isn’t eggs and darts and guilloches and dentils, it’s I-beams. Loads of ’em. They don’t support the structure and each is only two stories high, so they might help hold the windows a tad but mostly they make the building look a heck of a lot better. Venustas. Just because an ornament doesn’t look like a basket overgrown with acanthus leaves doesn’t mean it isn’t ornament.

another copyright Felicity Rich photo of a Barry Byrne building

another copyright Felicity Rich photo of a Barry Byrne building.

There is an attempt at clarity and unity that we identify with modernism, but I would argue that striving for economy of formal expression existed in many times and places, from Italy 2000 years ago to Ireland 1000 years ago to India 300 years ago to India 50 years ago, and that is only thinking about countries that start with “I.”

100 AD

900 AD

1700 AD

1960 AD
If you look at the career of a modernist who moved from Expressionism to Rationalism, like Oud or even Piet Mondrian, you see that one key to this movement or style or what have you is not simply simplicity or even simply an attempt to find venustas through an economy of form and material. It is also continuity, the most often overlooked aspect of Modernism.




Oh, heck, time to throw in Rietveld as long as we are being formalist….

But focus for a second on this Mondrian, which falls in between the evolution described visually above, and see the sense of continuity and connection. It is also there in Dulles airport, and this lovely Saarinen detail that lets a brick wall go through a glass wall without breaking continuity.



Continuity is the limited-access highway in planning and the fenetre en longeur and the machined surface and the streamlined railroad engine and continuity is there in Barry Byrne’s wall because even if there is fringe on the end, his goal was “clarity” and “unity” and that terra cotta is trying to express the wall, not add to it.

Photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Continuity was opposed by complexity and contradiction as High Modernism began its decline in the 1960s, but if we look closely at movements and forms that stress continuity and economy of line we find that they existed long before Mad Men. I was always stunned by the stuff of Biedermaier and Christopher Dresser in the first half of the 19th century because it was so…modern – but it was a century before modern.

So we need a word for modern (and so does Dwell) and we have needed it certainly since Byrne and Feininger commisserated about it back in 1925 but maybe if we look past the time period toward the impulse – economy of form, continuity and clarity – we might get there.

Prentice Women’s Hospital, Chicago

September 30, 2010


The next great new building in Chicago is Perkins and Will’s new hospital building for the Rush-Prebyterian St. Luke’s Hospital complex on the Near West Side. The new building features a multi-lobed design rising above a square base, looming over the Eisenhower Expressway and expressing with its insistent curving form a humanism central to the successful medical relationship. It is new and exciting.

And it is very similar to a 35-year old building, now threatened, by the architect who first brought this undulating form to the world of medicine when he crafted a maternity hospital that seems, in retrospect, like the first acknowledgement of the feminine in hospital architecture. In fact the new building touts the virtue of its plan in the same terms Goldberg used for his building in 1975:

“The tower’s butterfly-like shape allows for clear sight lines to every room from one of the nurse’s stations on each floor, allowing caregivers to see and respond to patient needs more quickly.”

Demolishers love to tell you how older buildings are functionally obsolete. I love to tell them I told you so. The Garrick Theatre was demolished in 1961 for a parking garage. The parking garage was demolished 35 years later for a theater. What goes around comes around and obsolescence rarely lasts a long time.

A major new effort to save Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital has been mounted by our friends at Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago, and promoted by no less than Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, who linked to this Facebook advocacy page.


This is a fantastic building. Unfortunately we live in a world where hospitals and universities present the greatest threats to our landmarks. Because they need to do the latest and greatest thing in their new buildings.

Even when the latest and greatest thing is 35 years old.

NOVEMBER UPDATE: The National Trust Midwest Office and Landmarks Illinois (I am on both boards) are working hard on to save “the cloverleaf” Prentice. I would also note that my first Prentice photo above has gone all over the interwebs – Blair Kamin credited it a few weeks back on his blog, and then Metropolis POV ran it again today sans credit.

DECEMBER UPDATE: I left the following description – from colleague Anthea Hartig – on the Save Prentice Facebook page:

“The forms at Prentice are in the same instant structural and sculptural. This is truly the unity of art and function, the continuing discourse of artistic and engineering expressions.”

And the question: Can you think of another building that achieves this as well as Prentice?

The responses were: Mies’ Crown Hall, Pei’s National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Saarinen’s TWA flight center, The Monadnock Building, and Ronchamp. Here was my response:

These are great examples of the architecture-engineering discourse, although I think Saarinen’s comes closest to Goldberg in seeking an aesthetic structural efficiency, and TWA has a lot of formalism in there. I think Pei and Corbu are even more formalist (nothing efficient – but everything beautiful – about Ronchamp). The Monadnock is perhaps the first iteration in the discourse, more elegant than efficient, while Crown Hall gains and suffers from Mies’ perfectionism and bravado: Prentice is a well-turned ankle while Crown Hall is a bulging bicep.

See the Facebook page and the new video here.

APRIL 2011 UPDATE:

Last week Northwestern Hospital announced they will demolish the building after the tenant moves out in September. They have no plans for the site – it is pure Neanderthal land banking. Odds are it will sit vacant a long time.

Alderman Reilly has asked Northwestern to hold off on applying for the demolition permit until the Landmarks Illinois Re-Use study comes out in a few weeks, which they are doing because – why not? They are using the building until September, and since it is just a dumb land bank, it doesn’t exactly matter when they demolish, because they won’t be rebuilding for a long time.

SIGN THE PETITION AGAINST YEARS OF VACANT LOT HERE

JUNE 15 UPDATE: Prentice is named one of the 11 Most Endangered Sites in the U.S. by the National Trust for Historic Preservation! I made the announcement at the Save Prentice Rally today!

We made the announcement in front of a full vacant block. Next to another vacant lot half-a-block large. Would you like Northwestern to create a THIRD vacant block in Streeterville?

2012 UPDATES: See my July 2012 blog updated through late August