The former Prentice Woman's hospital in Chicago, empty since 2011, may go down in history as the building which obtained landmark status for the shortest period. Last Thursday, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks decided unanimously that the structure by Chicago-born Bertrand Goldberg (1913-97) – who studied at the Bauhaus and worked for Mies van der Rohe – was worthy of the Chicago landmark designation. Then two hours later it was stripped of its designation, based on an economic impact report.
So after a long fight by preservationists to save this iconic building, the way is now cleared for its demolition by owner the Northwestern University. They want to replace the concrete cloverleaf-shaped building with a new biomedical research facility, using the remorseless logic, that rather than just saving a building, the University will actually be saving lives through the replacement state-of-the-art facility. Even the online petition that the preservationists organized, and which was signed by Bjarke Ingels, Renzo Piano and Tadao Ando amongst others, fell on deaf ears. It was handed to the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, but he has since publically taken the University's side, proclaiming since that: “A modern research facility needs a modern design.” Not surprising that preservationists feel the hearing at the Commission on Landmarks was probably merely a kangaroo court.
Yet a proposal exists that preserves both the existing structure and provides a new facility. Jeanne Gang and her firm Studio Gang Architects have drawn up a scheme that creatively reuses the existing structure, augmenting it with a glazed 31-storey skyscraper above, accommodating 55,000 square meters of research space. The proposal has been praised by Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times architecture critic, who said the building’s existing core provides a perfect ready-made foundation for the new superstructure.
The existing, highly distinctive 9-storey cloverleaf tower, dotted with oval windows, and hovering above its five-storey rectangular podium, was not only a breakthrough in structural engineering, when completed in 1975: it was itself, in its day, a revolution in hospital design. Designed as a maternity center, the patient areas were grouped in the four 'leaf' structures around a central nursing station at the building's core, thereby radically shortening distances between nurse and patient. Studio Gang’s solution is essentially a win-win, Kimmelman argues, allowing ‘the university to save lives, develop a healthier urban plan and sustain a special work of local culture.’
Could Jeanne Gang's proposal still save Prentice's life? If not, it will soon vanish from the Chicago skyline as quickly as it was erased from the City's Landmark List last week.
-- Luise Rellensmann, Los Angeles