Sunday, September 15, 2013

Beating a dead horse

The Spanish/American poet and essayist George Santayana is perhaps best known for his axiomatic quote:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Notoriously oblivious to the past, in the name of what we call "progress", we Americans are famous for trudging ahead, never looking back to reflect upon our mistakes, committing the same thoughtless acts over and over again.

And in doing so, we are continually reminded by cautious observers of the Santayana quote which despite how true, has become a tiresome cliché.

It shouldn't be at all surprising that we Americans behave as we do, after all, many of us are descended from folks who by choice discarded the old ways of life. leaving their old world behind in search of something new, never looking back.

It's part of our DNA.

I was reminded of this as I drove past Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital building yesterday as it begins to be covered up with the shroud of scaffolding signaling its doom.

In my previous posts on the subject, I've noted how similar the reaction to the planned destruction of this unquestionably significant building has been to previous battles we've had in this city over other great buildings that were lost, most notably the Garrick Theater and the Old Stock Exchange Buildings, both by Louis Sullivan.

Today, hardly a soul in this town doesn't mourn their loss, saying how absurd and short-sighted was their wanton destruction. Yet back in the days when something could be done to save them, there was little public support for the small, yet vociferous band of brothers and sisters who wrote passionately, signed petitions, marched, went to court, in short did everything they humanly could to preserve a significant part of this city's architectural legacy.

To the general public, these buildings, crumbling after years of neglect, thoughtlessly remodeled through the years,  were tired and old, representing a bygone era that nobody cared to remember. "New" and "Modern" in those days were highly sought after ideals, and architecturally speaking those words translated into steel and glass, not stone and terra-cotta.

If Louis Sullivan was considered an important architect, well we had plenty of his buildings still around, so nobody would miss one or two.

Photograph by Hedrich Blessing
Flash forward some fifty years and all we have left of the architect that Frank Lloyd Wright called his "lieber Meister," are the Auditorium Building, the Carson Pirie Scott Building, and a sprinkling of some lesser works. The vast majority of his oeuvre, including two of his greatest works mentioned above, are lost.

Goldberg's Prentice, like the Old Stock Exchange and the Garrick, has been altered in ways that detract from its original form. It wasn't maintained properly, and as these things go, its design speaks of a time, the 1970s, that we no longer consider appealing except as examples of kitsch; think bell bottoms, platform shoes and the Gremlin.

Despite protests in front of the shuttered former women's hospital where countless children (including mine) came into this world, public interest, including that of architecture enthusiasts regarding the imminent demise of Prentice, is mild at best. When it was built, Prentice was considered a bold, innovative statement, a daring example of Modern Architecture. Today, not even forty years old, it has become dated. Unfortunately, the building is in that in-between, no-mans land of a period, too old to be modern, to new to be charming or historic. We've lost many great buildings in this town for exactly that reason.

And what did Mayor Rahm Emanuel say in his support of the demolition of old Prentice? He said that while Prentice was a significant building and Bertrand Goldberg was an important architect, we have other buildings of his in town.

After all, progress is progress.

And after fifty years of progress, we still haven't learned a damned thing.

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