Saturday, October 20, 2012

Climbing off the fence

We've been through this before.

In 1960, protestors showed up at the the Garrick Theater in Chicago's Loop to challenge its imminent destruction. Although the building was granted landmark status, its owners felt the site could be put to more profitable use as a parking garage. So they applied for a demolition permit and after a court battle, got their way. In reality, few people cared about saving the great Louis Sullivan building that had seen better days and in the subsequent years, dozens of other important Chicago buildings were lost, with barely a peep from the general public. A few more protestors showed up in 1972 at the corner of LaSalle and Washington as the scaffolding marking its doom consumed the old Stock Exchange Building, another Sullivan gem, perhaps his finest. The relative few who expressed their concern and outrage over the destruction of our architectural heritage were voices crying out in a desert of indifference; the fact is, hardly anyone noticed those buildings back then, let alone cared about them. To the general public, they were just grimy old buildings that had outlived their usefulness.

Then something terrible happened during the destruction of the Stock Exchange Building. The de facto leader of the small band of brothers and sisters who fought for the buildings was killed as he was trying to salvage fragments from inside the old Sullivan building as it collapsed around him. His name was Richard Nickel, and his life's work was documenting the entire body of work of Louis Sullivan as it disappeared before his eyes.

In the end, Nickel's tragic death and the loss of the Garrick and Stock Exchange Buildings, galvanized Chicago's architectural preservation community. After the Stock Exchange Building came down, people in this city woke up and realized that architecture did in fact matter. Today, Chicagoans, the haughty and meek alike boast about their city's architecture and the city's official boosters use it as a selling point to lure potential residents and visitors.

Chicago is best known for its innovative commercial buildings from the turn of the last century whose form clearly expresses their structure, a style that slavishly adhered to Louis Sullivan's famous dictum: "form ever follows function." Much of "Modern" architecture in the fifties and sixties, especially the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his followers, can trace its roots back to the architects of "Chicago School." It would be heresy today to suggest knocking down any of these buildings.

But Chicago is an architecturally diverse city and unfortunately, the buildings that don't trace their roots back to Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, John Root, William Holabird and Martin Roche, are fair game.

The former Prentice Women's Hospital by Bertrand Goldberg,
awaiting its uncertain fate, October 20,  2012
One of this city's important architects who marched to the beat of his own drummer was Bertrand Goldberg whose work broke free of the constraints of the traditional Chicago style box. Goldberg's most famous works are the iconic corn cob towers of Marina City which typify his work, radiating around a central core, from the inside out rather than outside in. His egalitarian spirit let him to be a radical pioneer in the design of space, which in turn out of necessity led him to be an innovator in materials, predominantly reinforced concrete. His other residential works in Chicago run the gamut from the Astor Tower in the city's tony Gold Coast, to the Raymond Hilliard Homes on the near south side, Goldberg's attempt to humanize low income housing.

Goldberg, like his predecessors Frank Lloyd Wright and the French architect and planner Le Corbusier, was a utopian. He believed that architecture could be re-invented in order to change society for the betterment of people's lives. River City, built on the former approach to the long gone Grand Central railway station, was Goldberg's scaled down dream of building a city within a city, a mixed use complex of homes, shops, venues for entertainment and more.

Bud Goldberg applied his concepts of radial space in other areas, especially buildings devoted to health-care. Prentice Women's Hospital of 1975 was a ground breaking approach to hospital design. In the words of Michael Kimmelman, the architectural critic for the New York Times, Prentice:
...translated new ideas about hospital “villages” of care into unobstructed floors around a central nurses’ station.
The hand responsible for the design of Prentice is unmistakable; four cylindrical concrete towers containing the patients' rooms are bundled clover-like around a central core. The towers with their signature elliptical porthole windows, death defyingly cantilever over a more conventional steel and glass base which housed the hospital's other functions. It was a bold design for the era, stunningly different from anything else at the time, except other Goldberg buildings.

Northwestern University which owns Prentice, built a new women's hospital, closed the old one and plans to demolish it to make way for a research facility.

Again we're faced with the aspect of losing another architectural landmark, an important building that may have outlived its original intent, but could easily be adapted for any number of uses. Apparently however, not the use that Northwestern has in mind. The institution vehemently opposes any proposal to retrofit the thirty seven year old building to fit into their plans, including an 11th hour submission from the distinguished Chicago architect Jeanne Gang who, (at the suggestion of Michael Kimmelman) has proposed to build a tower above Goldberg's building.

Earlier in this space I stated the opinion that Prentice was no slam dunk for landmark status. But I have since come around to believe that the destruction of Prentice would be a tremendous loss, possibly rivaling that of the Garrick. Why the change of heart? Well I've listened to both sides of the argument and frankly, it's the "let's demolish Prentice" argument that has swayed me the most, negatively of course.

Ample land surrounding Prentice and its environs
Take the university hospital and their disingenuous campaign to convince the public that preservationists are hijacking the creation of thousands of new jobs, millions of dollars of revenue into the city and life saving treatments, all to save an old building. The truth is the hospital has no immediate plans to build the new facility; it wants to level the Goldberg building and leave the site empty until the time when and if ground is broken for the new building. In other words, Northwestern wants to replace a perfectly good building with a vacant lot. If you've visited the neighborhood in which old Prentice resides, you know that it is filled with many empty lots. I'd compare it to the East Berlin I visited just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. By the way, since there are all those empty lots in the the vicinity, most of which owned by Northwestern, why is it not possible to build their research facility somewhere else, directly across the street for example?

Even more compelling are the voices of people whom I know to be passionate about all things Chicago and its history, including its architecture. They are unmoved by the proposed demolition saying things such as: "We have other examples of Bertrand Goldberg architecture in town that are not in any danger of coming down." Or: "The building's only thirty odd years old, it hasn't been around long enough to have earned the distinction of being a landmark." Or this catch-all phrase: "We need to be more concerned about people than buildings."

I'll give you that Goldberg's Prentice is not an eminently lovable building; it's too old to be modern and too new to be charming. It hasn't aged all that well and it's been partially altered so the arches that lead dramatically up to its towers have been obscured by the extension of the glass and steel base.

It dawned on me this morning as I listened to more arguments in favor of demolishing Prentice, that those same arguments were leveled in favor of demolishing some of Chicago's greatest buildings forty and fifty years ago. The Garrick and Stock Exchange were not the only Sullivan buildings in town when they came down. They hadn't aged very well either, were disrespectfully altered, not maintained properly, and covered with a patina of grime. Mostly they seemed irrelevant, memories of a bygone era for which we had little use. Like Prentice today, there was a contingent of folks back then who thought the old Sullivan buildings were eyesores. The comment I heard this morning: "let's tear it down and put up something new" has a familiar ring to it. Yet many of the folks who don't care about the fate of Prentice would no doubt look upon the loss of those earlier buildings as nothing less than wanton destruction.

Despite years of neglect, old Prentice still has
 a dramatic presence in the Streeterville neighborhood
The handful of buildings that survived the dark era of wholesale destruction of our architectural legacy, have been lovingly restored and in some cases today are as beautiful as the day they were built, in some cases even more. It breaks my heart to think how much greater this city would be if some of the buildings we destroyed over the course of about fifteen years, had been allowed to stand, restored to their original splendor.

No I don't believe we should save everything. A city that does not build and grow, dies. Not all old buildings are great or even good for that matter; not everything deserves landmark status. Nor are all new buildings bad, (I'm old enough to still consider old Prentice a new building). In general, we have a bad taste in our mouths about the seventies, especially its architecture and design. Much of that derision is unfortunately deserved, virtually all of the great buildings lost during that time were replaced by unadulterated crap.

Prentice is an important perhaps even great building that was designed by an architect who cut through all that crap. Bertrand Goldberg was an innovator, an experimenter committed to the idea that through the practice of his art and craft, he could benefit humanity. Although many of his utopian ideas have long been discounted (as have Le Corbusier's and Wright's), we can't blame him for trying. Plus he built some pretty wonderful buildings to boot, and Prentice may very well be one of his best.

Let's keep it around until we can begin to appreciate it again, just as we appreciate Sullivan today in ways we could not comprehend fifty years ago.

Do I believe the philistines are knocking at the door? Hardly. Just the short sighted and the indifferent, a much more formidable adversary.

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