After a lengthy struggle, the demolition of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital is underway. Yet the building’s owner, Northwestern University, is proving a shockingly sore winner. Not content with its victory over preservationists, the university has imposed a two-year moratorium on the hiring of architects who publicly advocated saving Prentice. That includes dozens who signed a petition last year asking Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to intercede on the building’s behalf.
The decision to tear down the Goldberg building exposed Northwestern to accusations of philistinism. Blacklisting those who protested the demolition is beyond the pale, an affront to the entire architecture profession. Moreover, the university is betraying its own academic values. Institutions of higher learning should embrace debate, not stifle it.
Perkins+Will will design a new biomedical research building on the downtown Chicago site of Prentice. It was tempting to suggest that the three firms named as finalists for that plum commission—and the architecture profession in general—should fight fire with fire, and organize a boycott of Northwestern.
At the end of the day, however, the point isn’t to punish bad clients, it’s to win them over. I suspect it is far better politics, and it is certainly more psychologically effective, to educate the decision makers at Northwestern about architecture’s potential. Perkins+Will and the other firms on the shortlist considered to replace Prentice have a tremendous opportunity—an obligation, even—to convert the university into an advocate for good design.
Chicago is an architecture-minded city, so there are many educational tools on hand: The university’s board of trustees could take a Chicago Architecture Foundation river cruise, attend an AIA Chicago lecture, or visit the Art Institute’s architecture and design galleries. In fact, the board members don’t even need to leave campus. They could spend time at Northwestern’s own Segal Design Institute, a program underwritten by Carole and Gordon Segal, co-founders of Crate & Barrel.
“We are very excited to make a contribution to Northwestern that will enhance its reputation as a leader in design,” Gordon Segal said (apparently without irony) on the occasion of the institute’s opening in 2007. “Design is probably the biggest competitive advantage the United States has in a rapidly changing and highly competitive world.”
Segal should know—he and his wife got rich selling Marimekko table linens and the like to millions of American households. He also chairs the Northwestern board’s educational properties committee, which affords him tremendous influence over the real-estate portfolio and the hiring of architects. Given his personal reputation as a design champion, perhaps Segal could steer the university toward more productive relationships with architects.
I would love to take the educational properties committee on a tour of other Chicago-area universities. Columbia College Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the University of Chicago all recently have commissioned innovative architecture and adaptive reuse projects to change themselves for the better. There is absolutely no reason why Northwestern can’t do the same on its campuses in downtown Chicago and in suburban Evanston, Ill.
You and I know that buildings have value far beyond the cost of their construction and the price of the land on which they sit. We know that an architect, engaged with an open mind, can offer much more than a transactional service. Architecture and architects have the power to embody and even shape an institution’s ideals and aspirations.
Let’s hope that’s a lesson Northwestern is willing to learn.