Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital (1975) in Chicago met the wrecking ball on October 11, after a lengthy and bizarre process, involving landmark status approved and revoked, a mayoral op-ed, and little kids in preservation t-shirts. They were born at Prentice, and in the hospital’s destruction, they may have learned their first political lesson. It was a sad day for Modernism, and a sad day for common sense: Northwestern University’s insistence that they needed that site and no other for a new biomedical lab never held up to scrutiny. It would be nice to think that Prentice would be the last structurally daring, imaginatively conceived concrete building clawed to rubble, but it probably won’t be. Something more beautiful has got to go.
The demolition of Prentice hospital is not Brutalism’s—or even Modernism’s—Penn Station Moment, as architectural historian Michael R. Allen suggests in Next City. Unfortunately, it is going to take the sacrifice of another postwar landmark to create the kind of broad-based, politically connected, media-savvy preservation movement to support Modernism each time it is threatened. The modern preservation movement has had its victories. M. Paul Friedberg’s Peavey Plaza (1975) in Minneapolis was saved from “revitalization” in October, after the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and the Cultural Landscape Foundation settled a lawsuit filed with the City of Minneapolis. Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center (1967) is still with us, but its future remains in doubt. Modern preservation is still niche.
Maybe someone needs to start ModPAC.
Preservation in general is often cast as retrograde. Against progress, for example, in building an airport up to contemporary standards—as in the case of the Pan Am Worldport (1960), designed by Walther Prokosch and Emanuel Turano, for John F. Kennedy International Airport, and closed this spring. Against sustainability, in the closing of Josep Lluís Sert’s Martin Luther King Jr. School (1971) in Cambridge, Mass., to be replaced by a new, “green” elementary school. That recycling is more sustainable, and that designers are trained to solve problems, including those of retrofit and reuse, are notions often pushed aside. Modern preservation can also be seen as snobby: architects circling the wagons to the detriment of the people who teach or travel.
It is worth thinking about what Penn Station had that Prentice hospital did not. I can think of three essential qualities, all of which gave the station’s demolition in 1963 an emotional content that reached beyond the architectural community.
The first quality is beauty. This is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but Brutalism tends to need a lot of explaining to the uninitiated. Penn Station’s eagles, its marble, its top-lit spaces, its columns were all elements many of us agree are beautiful, or at least old and venerable. Its architectural quality was plain—so plain that I suspect New York–based SHoP Architects borrowed the mote-filled light from vintage Penn Station photographs for their Municipal Art Society–sponsored rendering of a new transit hub.
Prentice hospital was not beautiful. Its cloverleaf top is weird, even to an admirer like me. Its glassed-in bottom, as architecture critic Blair Kamin wrote in the Chicago Tribune, was “boxy” and “unremarkable.” You can tell people a building is important as often as you like, but unless they feel it, they won’t cry over its destruction, and they won’t organize so that it never happens again. Preservationists (and architecture critics, myself included) can learn to tell better stories about buildings: their secret spaces, their best angles, their relationship to history and use. But experience might still tell a different story. It’s dark. It’s rough. It makes me feel small. It makes me want to run away.
Second is popularity, or at least populousness. Stations, stadiums, and parks can have millions of users whose nostalgia ties them to a place. I was educated in one Brutalist school and met my husband in another, but I think I am a rare case. At rallies to save Prentice, children wore “I Was Born at ‘Old’ Prentice” t-shirts, and that was exactly the right idea. Each leaf, in plan, held radiating maternity rooms, easily monitored from a central nursing station. Office designers of the late 1960s abandoned the endless corridor, and so did hospital architects: the idea was pods and communities, breaking down the anonymity of what could be seen as a seven-story baby factory. If anyone had a sentimental attachment to the building, it would be those parents, those children, and they turned out at hearings and protests. But the political fix—Mayor Rahm Emanuel wrote an op-ed arguing for demolition—overruled any argument. Penn Station met the wrecking ball because of real estate interests; the same was true for Prentice.
Third is history. Penn Station was emblematic of a kind of grand city-building that, in the 1960s, already seemed long gone. The theme of Ada Louise Huxtable’s cutting 1963 “Farewell to Penn Station” (for The New York Times) is irrevocable loss, a sense that we can’t have Penn Station because we are no longer, as a city, good enough: “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves.” As the railroads went, their glamour replaced by air travel, so did the architecture of railroad stations. More relevant to the Penn Station example, Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center (1962) sits empty, asbestos expensively abated, awaiting approval by the local Port Authority for its transformation into a hotel and conference center by André Balazs of André Balazs Properties. If TWA had been destroyed instead, would there be any debate about the urgency of saving Modernism?
Preservation’s modern Penn Station will need to be beautiful without explanation, well-used by a wide spectrum of the public, and connected to history—a place where something happened, a space emblematic of its period. It will take a building with all those qualities to engender the kind of passionate preservation movement, one reaching beyond experts, to overcome a situation like the one Prentice found itself in, where the upholders of landmarks legislation are more worried about the mayor than history.
Correction: This story originally indicated that the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and the Cultural Landscape Foundation won a lawsuit against the City of Minneapolis regarding Peavey Plaza. The case was settled.