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Save the Weirdness of Prentice Hospital for Weirdness' Sake

Save the Weirdness of Prentice Hospital for Weirdness' Sake

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    Courtesy Northwestern University

    Montgomery Ward building, circa 1929

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    Courtesy Northwestern University

    James Gamble Rogers's Northwestern University Weiboldt Hall

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    Courtesy Northwestern University

    James Gamble Rogers's Northwestern University Montgomery Ward building

Should Prentice Women’s Hospital be saved? Certainly, but maybe not because it is a great building. I have always been skeptical of Bertrand Goldberg as an architect. I know he is revered in Chicago, and I know that his corn-cob apartment towers on the Chicago River have acted well in starring roles in films such as The Blues Brothers, but should we really revere badly detailed concrete silos that impose dysfunctional round forms on the urban grid? If the answer is yes, it is only because they are such oddities, not because of any intrinsic merits.

I have not been inside the Prentice building. I have spent time on the street looking up at it, and I must say that I have never quite understood its full charms. Above a base that I would describe as an elongated Miesian box with mullions too closely spaced, with no acknowledgement to its surroundings, hover the concrete cloverleaf patient rooms. It is certainly ingenious that each of the leaves cantilevers out from the central core, but the technology seems to have necessitated an amount of concrete that leaves tiny windows in the façades, while looking up at the silos’ bottoms gives you only a view of more concrete. 

In many ways, the hospital is a building only an architect could love, as it sacrifices any sense of identity, place, or function to a strong idea carried out with stronger forms. Given the amount of public support for its preservation, though, it seems that even those not in love with construction have a fondness for its bulges.

My thoughts on the issue are somewhat colored by the fact that Prentice Hospital is part of a larger complex whose first phase was designed by James Gamble Rogers for Northwestern University in the late 1920s. I wrote my first book about this architect, and have always admired the way that he gave the Evanston, Ill.–based university a strong, urban presence along Chicago Avenue with a serried row of Neo-Gothic buildings. They are not his very best designs, but together they created the beginnings of an academic answer to the thrusting competition of office and residential skyscrapers of Chicago’s downtown.

But things went downhill from there. Over the years, Northwestern has replaced some and added to others of Rogers’s contextual towers with among the blandest institutional behemoths in the city, and neighboring developers have done worse. Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Apartments answered Rogers’s closed ranks with a promise of open relations dissolving the urban grid, but instead the neighborhood has just filled up with boring blocks.

Within that context, the Prentice Hospital is a work of genius. It breaks open those boxes and promises a new world. You can imagine an alternate reality in which its base would have continued for blocks, and architects would have invented ever-more-inventive forms to dance around on top of this plinth. Instead of either ordered grids or contrapunctual planes, we would have had a playground or urban form.

Alas, Prentice Hall is a relic and perhaps, even by the time you read this, a ruin. We can only wish that a talented local architect such as Jeanne Gang, who tried to paste some curviness onto the developer-driven Aqua residential box nearby—or some other inventive and sensitive architect—will see this sad fact as an opportunity. I am afraid, however, that more blandness will replace willful weirdness, and Chicago will continue its decline from brawny metropolis to a prairie or urban banality.