Saturday, August 18, 2012

Point, counter point

Point one: Northwestern University owns the building that used to house its Prentice Women's Hospital. That building was a ground breaking design by the famed Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg which revolutionized the design of hospitals and along with it, patient care. The building has been replaced by a more up to date building that the hospital believes better serves the needs of expectant mothers and their new born children. They would like to tear down the thirty seven year old building in order to build a state of the art research center, which they say would serve their needs better than converting the old building to such a purpose. Not only that but the University contends the new building would bring in billions of dollars and thousands of jobs to the city, not to mention save countless lives through the research that would take place within its doors. All of this would vanish the if University were prevented to build their new building while old building remained. This view was articulated in an editorial in this week's Tribune.

Point two: Liar liar pants on fire. Lynn Becker blasts the Tribune and Northwestern in a post you can find here.

As the rhetoric heats up, it's interesting to look at the images the two articles use to illustrate their relative points.

The Tribune photograph of old Prentice illustrating their editorial is little more than a snapshot showing the now shuttered building in unbecoming flat light, emphasizing the dinginess of the building's concrete facade.

Becker uses an architectural rendering of the Goldberg building which employs dramatic lighting; the picture's vertical format emphasizes the building's eccentric cluster of tubular forms that resemble a giant rocket ship soaring toward the sky. The more traditional steel and glass facade of the base of Prentice is also rendered beautifully, gleaming with a reflection of the sky and the Chicago skyline. The building looks truly spectacular in this illustration, a one of a kind work of art, what kind of Phillistine would dare knock it down?

Unfortunately as is usually the case, the actual building does not quite live up to the rendering. Here is a photograph from Chicago's premier architectural photography firm Hedrich Blessing, that shows a more realistic, yet also flattering view of the building.

To make his case against the Tribune, Becker dug out a markedly unattractive photograph, also from Hedrich Blessing, of the first McCormick Place (developed by Tribune publisher Robert McCormick) behind a jammed parking lot. The Trib's support of Northwestern in this battle is in Becker's words:
...what you expect from those wonderful people who gave you McCormick Place on what should of remained open lakefront.
Becker's caption to the photograph reads: "Chicago Tribune urban planning at work"

Clearly given its track record, the Tribune according to Becker, has no idea what's best for the city.

I have to say my sympathies lie with the preservationists on this one. While old Prentice is no slam dunk candidate in my opinion for landmark status, I truly believe that it is an important building, one well worth saving. As I have heard Becker point out numerous times and I agree, a green building is an existing building, not one in a landfill. Northwestern University is being disingenuous when it claims there are no practical alternatives to destroying old Prentice. Their stated short term plan all along has been to build their prospective research center in the near future, meaning that once the Goldberg building is gone, its site would sit vacant for an undetermined period of time. Things change and it is very possible that they might indefinitely table their plans to build a new building. This city may need a lot of things, but what it most definitely does not need is another vacant lot. The gargantuan vacant lot at the site of what was once the Michael Reese Hospital on the near south side proves that in leaps and bounds. The University owns a great deal of property in the Streeterville neighborhood, and much of it now is vacant. It's very hard to believe that viable alternatives cannot be found. A plan for creative reuse of the old Prentice would be a win win situation for everybody.

Still there are no easy answers and once again we are faced with the struggle over community rights versus owner rights. Here I think Northwestern as primarily an institution of higher learning, has the wherewithal and the obligation to take it upon themselves to come up with a solution that would benefit the entire community, not just their own bottom line.

1 comment:

Kenneth Tanaka said...

"It's very hard to believe that viable alternatives cannot be found. A plan for creative reuse of the old Prentice would be a win win situation for everybody."

Amen to that.