Prentice Falls: Brutalism torn down in Chicago


A random photo I took on my way to work. I didn’t know that the scaffolding on the bottom meant it was being torn down.

As part of an ethnography study this past month,  I was working at the emergency department at Northwestern’s hospital in downtown Chicago. I passed by Prentice Woman’s Hospital on my walk from the bus stop to the ER and always admired the beautiful structure. When I took this picture a couple weeks ago, I didn’t know that the building was being torn down. I assumed that it was being renovated; with the current trend in architecture towards preservation, it would be pretty uncommon for such a striking building to be demolished.

You can imagine my dismay when I came across an article in the Chicago Tribune about the Prentice being replaced to accommodate newer hospital facilities. While I can appreciate and understand the fact that configuration of space is important, it is such a shame that efficiency has to complete replace a work of art and one of the few reminders of the architectural trend of its time. It is like plowing through a rose garden, instead of going around it, to put in a large highway. Okay, maybe not the best metaphor, but you see my point. Also, the wreckage could not have come at a better time in light of the popular Miley Cyrus music video “Wrecking Ball.” The university should be grateful that none of its undergrads are concerned enough about architectural preservation to create a parody video….

Prentice was designed by Bertrand Goldberg, who designed in the fashion of Brutalism, which most often looks very rugged because of the “printed” blocks of concrete. (Goldberg also designed Marina City, a twin tower complex that looks like two corn cobs.) I don’t know why so many people dislike this style of architecture because I personally love it- Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn…..There are a few buildings on Northwestern’s Evanston campus- including Frances Searles (my building) and the library- that are most definitely in the style of Brutalism.

The interesting thing about this building’s design was that it was meant to facilitate social interactions. According to this article in Metropolis,

“The ‘four leaf clover’ plan of this tower splits each floor into four tiny communities, fostering greater social ties between the neighboring occupants. The radial arrangement creates a large number of crisscrossing routes around each floor, meaning there is more chance for incidental social encounters than in a typical hospital with rooms arranged along a corridor.  It also places all patients roughly equidistant from the centrally-located nurses’ station, allowing for efficient care.”

That’s pretty awesome.

Demolition has begun on the former Prentice Women's Hospital at 250 E. Superior in Chicago, shown on Friday, Oct. 11, 2013.   (Heather Charles/The Chicago Tribune)

Demolition has begun on the former Prentice Women’s Hospital at 250 E. Superior in Chicago, shown on Friday, Oct. 11, 2013. (Heather Charles/The Chicago Tribune). Click picture to go to Chicago Tribune article.

Who will replace Prentice?

According to the Chicago Herald, 3 architectural firms- Perkins + Will, Goettsch Partners, and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture are competing for the project. They will apparently submit their designs in the next few weeks and will be displayed on the Web before the university’s board of trustees selects a winner. It is uncertain how much the board will take into consideration the public’s reaction, if any. Perkins + Will has expertise in higher ed and medical buildings, but none of the buildings in their portfolio have a unique, striking exterior. Goettsch already has deal with Northwestern (new music building in Evanston-slated for 2015) and has done a lot of innovative high rises, but doesn’t really have a hospital expertise, so it will be interesting how they come up with the interior design. Adrian Smith + Gorden Gill also have a lot of fancy commercial buildings in their portfolio, but not much experience in hospitals or research facilities.

Image from Studio Gang Architects

Image from Studio Gang Architects

What confuses me is why the demolition is taking place prior to the selection of a new design.

While writing this post, I took a quick break to search the Internet after writing the above sentence because it seemed odd that preservationists would have let this happen. Unsurprisingly, I found that there had been quite the “battle” to keep the structure as it is. Apparently, more than 60 architects, including Frank Gehry, SOM, MacArthur “genius grant” winner Jeanne Gang tried to persuade the mayor to help preserve the building.  For example, Jeanne Gang came up with a proposal that would keep the current structure intact. Like the Hearst Tower in New York, this design would leave the current structure as a base and add the modern structure on the top, and have skywalks that connect with the two adjacent buildings. The double cantilever would have been an interesting addition to the Windy City.

It is natural for a city to evolve, but the unfortunate thing about razing is that you are getting rid of a part of history that can never be restored. Chicago is a great city in terms of architecture because it has everything from the Art Deco buildings to the modern skyscrapers and contemporary high rises. You can see the evolution of design. It is such a shame that this building has to be taken off the map.


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