This fall has brought me two auspicious pieces of mail. On Sept. 21, a solicitation to join AARP arrived. This turns out to be the same day that Radiohead’s “Creep,” the caterwaul of self-loathing that defined my high school experience, was released 20 years ago, in 1992. It really made me feel my age. It felt as if the world was trying to tell me something, and I had it double confirmed in the next week, when a copy of Northwestern University’s alumni magazine materialized at my parents’ house, where all of my donation-soliciting mail continues to go.
Normally I ignore this publication, because I do not enjoy reading about my peers who are so massively successful that they have found it obligatory to “give back” to the university that extracted – and in my case, will continue to extract until, and possibly beyond my death – nearly six figures during their collegiate years. But never mind all that.
On the cover of the Fall alumni magazine was a carved wooden owl, which I recognized from the school’s Deering Library, accompanied by the clever tag line, “A Who’s Who of Northwestern Buildings.” Northwestern, like many campuses, is a hodgepodge of late-19th-century eclecticism, Collegiate Gothic, and a substantial dose of late-modern “Brutalist” architecture. It’s ironic that Northwestern should now be going through an inventory of its buildings for the pleasure of its alumni and contributors, because it has also been sending mail to those same “friends” asking them for their support in its quest to tear down one of its more architecturally noteworthy structures.
My alma mater is at the center of a controversy regarding the place of Brutalist architecture in the contemporary landscape. Northwestern Memorial Hospital has vacated and plans to demolish the Prentice Women’s Hospital, a cloverleaf-shaped concrete edifice with “pods” that cantilever off a cylindrical core, to build a research facility in its place, and connect it via sky bridge to an adjacent building. Completed in 1975 on Northwestern’s professional school campus in downtown Chicago, it was designed by Bertrand Goldberg, who also designed the corncob-shaped Marina City and the serpentine River City projects along the Chicago River.
Considered an innovation in hospital design when it opened, Prentice’s floor plans were column-free, allowing maximum configurability, and placed nurses’ stations close to the patient rooms that surrounded them, allowing nurses to keep an eye on patients without traversing long corridors. It was also revolutionary for allowing more family-oriented childbirths, putting to rest the old nervous-father-smoking-in-the-lobby tradition.
Prentice is also recognized as one of the most sophisticated engineering feats of its day, using early CAD software and concrete-reinforcement techniques previously reserved only for dams and waterworks. This fact is unsurprising, as the oval-windowed building looks like something you’d use to plug a drain, and that’s not helping its cause.
But Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the World Heritage Fund, and 90 architects, including 10 winners of the Pritzker Prize (founded by Jay and Cindy Pritzker of the Hyatt hotel chain, headquartered in Chicago) are interested in the cause, and have signed a letter to Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel (a Northwestern graduate) imploring him to save Prentice. Not that it’s really his decision – he appoints members to the City’s Landmarks commission, but is not a decision-maker. The decision has been pushed back repeatedly, and did not make the commission’s latest agenda on October 4. The next scheduled meeting is Nov. 1.
Emmanuel has also reportedly received letters from architecture firms such as Holabird & Root, HOK and DeStefano Partners, all of which have done work on the Northwestern Campus recently and doubtless hope to do so in the future, encouraging him to let NU tear down the building. Editorials in the Chicago Tribune have repeatedly advocated NU’s plan. The Tribune’s managing editor and co-owner from 1854 to 1864, Joseph Medill, is a former Chicago mayor and Northwestern’s school of journalism is named after him.
The Chicago Sun-Times, whose offices were razed to make way for the Trump Tower, got a new headquarters in the Apparel Center, a stunningly banal concrete pile. After first arguing that the Commission on Chicago Landmarks place consideration of Prentice at the top of the agenda, the Sun-Times has now also picked up the pitchfork. The wielder is none other than Neil Steinberg, who has in the past reserved quite a bit of bitterness toward the alma mater we share.
Truthiness Be Told
For its own part, Northwestern is promulgating what alum Stephen Colbert famously calls “truthiness.” Unquestionably, Prentice is no longer in the medical vanguard, its low ceilings prohibiting the advanced ventilation and data systems in contemporary facilities, among other shortcomings. NU has argued that Prentice can’t be used for any other purpose, and that there’s nowhere else suitable to build its 500,000 SF replacement, which is expected to pull in $300 million in research grants annually. But that’s just patently untrue – many people never gave Prentice a second glance before the Lakeside Veterans Administration Hospital directly across the street was demolished in 2008, giving NU several acres of vacant land to build anything it wants. Though there is validity to the idea that allowing researchers to mix in close proximity helps accelerate medical research, it’s not as if extending the skybridge a few more feet across a street is going to destroy that potential.
But that’s not how NU is playing it: its director of the medical school, Eric G. Neilson, titled an editorial in the Sun-Times “Save Prentice or Save Lives,” in which he bluntly stated, “Chicago has a choice. It can save a building. Or it can save lives, provide thousands of jobs and bring in millions of research dollars.” According to Neilson, the vacant lot is owned by Northwestern Memorial Hospital, which “is a separate entity committed to using that land for future patient care. The university strongly supports those plans,” he said, without specifying what those plans are. Not to put too fine a point on it, NU also ran a full-page ad in the Tribune with an adorable baby’s face, asking, “Where will her cure be found?”
Northwestern has announced that it will sponsor a design competition to create a world-class building for its new research facility that would replace the old Prentice, but considering the lack of adventurousness in previous downtown buildings, including the new Prentice, that seems a dubious bargain to accept. And when Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry, Jeanne Gang, and dozens of other prominent architects are standing in opposition to the demolition plan, who exactly will be entering this competition? Fortunately, the Chicago Architecture Club is also sponsoring a competition for re-use proposals for old Prentice.
Addressing SCI-ARC last month, Vanity Fair architecture critic Paul Goldberger said of Prentice, “The university has argued that preservationists are somehow ‘against medical research.’ That’s utterly disingenuous and a false dichotomy – put it across the street!”
This is not Chicago’s most beautiful building. It is not even Goldberg’s best building. It’s certainly not everyone’s idea of “aesthetically pleasing.” But architectural history was made here, in the same way that the Water Tower was significant not because of its looks, but because it happened not to be made of wood, which prevented it from being burned down in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Enter building codes, fireproofing and a lot more steel and concrete – the North American cities as we know them, and burn to the ground much less frequently today. The practices and spatial innovations developed at Prentice have been repeated in hospitals elsewhere, but that doesn’t make it less significant. The failure to understand a building’s place in history, regardless of whether it is to one’s taste or not, is a poor excuse for pretending that demolishing it is the best option, without at least exploring whether someone else might want it.
Brutalism Is the Prog-Rock of Architecture
I might be taking this battle a little personally because a reviewer once said of a design I’d proposed with circular windows – “I just don’t buy circles in buildings.” Right, me neither. What was I thinking? The Pantheon – what a dump.
I might be taking it personally because the old Prentice is almost the same age as me, and there’s something wrong with a society that is so ready to trash significant buildings that are only 37 years old, especially when we now know that buildings contribute one third of all the landfill waste on the planet.
I’m taking it personally because my own school is being a bad citizen by not listening to people who know their stuff, and painting the whole affair as a black-and-white decision, in a city where it pays no property taxes.
Maybe I take it personally because Brutalism is of the same vintage, and bears a resemblance to progressive rock, in which I bathed during my youth. Living or working in a “concept” building, whose architect is challenging us with meaning, texture and symbols when we just want to find the bathroom, is a little like trying to make out to a concept album that keeps switching time signatures, or features someone shrieking about dystopian Orwellian societies or the wives of Henry VIII, when we’re just trying to find someone else’s tonsils. There’s a bit of a show-off quality to progressive rock and to Brutalism, like someone playing virtuoso just to prove that they can.
Some people find a building like Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY, currently also under threat of demolition, to be like a 15-minute guitar solo – garish, gangly, out of place and tone-deaf to the people enveloped within it. Importantly, with its 86 independent roof planes, it does leak quite a lot. Wherever there is a connection between a plane and a wall, there is potential for leaks. But it’s been determined it’s mostly because of poor maintenance. It’s not as if the leadership of Orange County in the 1960s didn’t know this – they just thought their inheritors would take care of the special place they commissioned. It’s part of government’s responsibility to maintain buildings it commissions, or see that they pass into the hands of someone else who has the means to do so, if the building no longer serves its initial purpose.
When you see what county executive Ed Diana wants to replace Rudolph’s Government Center with – a mock-colonial building that looks like a Friendly’s – you begin to understand why this proposal has architects pretty upset.
It’s like someone saying that, because you didn’t take very good care of your copy of “Aqualung,” and it got scratched, now you have to listen only to Christopher Cross. Who wants to be challenged, anyway? The difference is, whereas your “difficult” prog-rock history can just be put in deep physical or digital storage, destroying a “difficult” building is a permanent erasure of a singular entity.
“These are buildings that demand more from us and deliver more for us,” Goldberger says. “Rudolph’s work was an investigation into the nature of service and those it serves. But innovation and fresh thinking are not characteristic of government architecture in the Tea Party era.”
I would not go to the mat for every Brutalist building, nor every building by a respected architect. Even before I studied architecture, I took issue with my school’s seeming tendency to pick up the dropped batter of the architectural vanguard of the time. While Walter Netsch designed the soaring, almost operatic Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, now a national landmark, local universities got a lot of his designs that seemed to be a catcher’s mitt for surplus concrete, including the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago, which slabbed over an entire neighborhood, including the Maxwell Street Market.
In my time as an undergraduate at Northwestern, I would have been the first person to propose dynamiting University Library, the pile of interlocking cogs on concrete stilts which spurred a campus legend: supposedly it is sinking into the landfill on which it is built because engineers failed to calculate the weight of the books inside. The 1970 Netsch concoction, which I called “Battlestar Biblioteca,” confounded attempts to find anything quickly among shelves arranged radially from the center core of each of three towers. On the other hand, much can be said for the quiet moments (or shenanigans) one could devise for oneself (or a companion) in the coveted study rooms that cantilevered out over the campus, sometimes providing contemplative views of Lake Michigan, or chilling views of Netsch’s Norris University Center in front of it.
That bunker-like facility also earned my ire for its windowless corridors, its rough aggregate concrete surfaces that would scrape unsuspecting passers-by and its wood-grain basement with orange tiles and earth-tone modular furniture. A student movement is currently underway to replace it, and the University seems to be taking it seriously.
The Rebecca Crown Center was the subject of another campus legend – designed (again, by Netsch) during the throes of student rebellion in 1968, and in the wake of the University of Texas shooting, its moat-like level separations and confusing layout seemed to go beyond Brutalist and straight to medieval, as if it were specifically designed to discourage marauders. The legend was that administrators could shelter there behind narrow windows, protected by limestone-slab “shading devices,” avoiding the larger objects students could throw and affording a good prospect from which to take a shot or two.
But now I’ve spent a lot more time studying architecture, and my own rigid and antagonistic feelings toward Brutalism have softened.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Brutalism is poorly understood by the public – for one thing, it refers to the use of raw concrete, béton brut, left with traces of formwork still on it, not to “brutality,” though the style is characterized by roughness and block-like forms. It is generally lumped in as another example of ‘70s bad taste, along with polyester and shag carpet. Truly, some of these buildings do not function to support the exact purpose for which they were designed. But that doesn’t mean we should just start bulldozing them. That’s the same sort of logic that eliminated functioning, tight-knit low-income neighborhoods for ur-Brutalist complexes like Boston’s Government Center, derided by everyone from Jane Jacobs to Jonathan Richman. (Rudolph has an unfinished project, the Government Service Center, in the complex). It’s that kind of blunt-instrument urban planning – calling any neighborhood with problems “blighted” so that it can be replaced with civic slabs – that put the “brutality” in “Brutalism.” Now is it Brutalism’s turn at the guillotine?
At the peak of Corporate Internationalism, people thought the Beaux-Arts opulence of New York’s Pennsylvania Station was dated, and it didn’t fit the then-present need for leasable office space above a struggling railroad, so down it came. This is not to equate Prentice with Penn, but it is to say that once something unique comes down, it never goes up again.
…And When You Smile for the Camera…
If anything, the best antidote for forestalling the premature destruction of significant but “dated” buildings is to understand how people use them. That was the object of classic studies like William Whyte’s “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,” and it is the object of a photo essay of Goldberg’s Marina City by architect Iker Gil and photographer Andreas Larsson, whose “Inside Marina City,” exhibition just opened at the Woodbury University Hollywood Gallery in Los Angeles, after a stint at the Art Institute of Chicago and the pinkcomma gallery in Boston.
Marina City also represents the vanguard of innovation at the time of its completion in 1965, with its spiraling parking ramp and “city within a city” comprehensiveness, including a bowling alley and 400-boat marina. Iker and Larsson shot residents in 40 of the 900 apartments in the twin towers, with the object of showing that this is a place that is loved both by architects and residents.
Marina City is full of architectural innovations, including column-free floor plans and a circular core whose opening interpolates on either side of the elevator shafts on odd and even floors, so as not to compromise the structure. The circular shape afforded the greatest possible enclosure in the least possible floor area, and gave every apartment a balcony, as well as the shortest possible distance for utilities to travel from the core. The Fiberglas forms into which concrete was poured were re-used 67 times before being discarded, allowing the towers to rise 1 floor every two days. The concrete core and circular shape made for 30 percent less wind resistance that a comparable conventionally square tower of the same height.
But just as importantly, the towers support a thriving community. Unlike many ambitious Modernist projects, Marina City remains a success story on a social level. It was financed by an elevator operator and janitor’s union in 1958 with the intention of stemming the tide of the white middle class to the suburbs, and is credited with beginning the residential renaissance of American inner cities. Converted to condominiums in 1977, Marina City now typically sees residents spending decades in the tower, trading up to bigger units with better views over time.
Some residents obsessively preserve the 1960s all-electric pastel appliances and steel shelving, turning their dwellings into shrines of white reverence for the Jet Age. But others take advantage of the column-free design by knocking out kitchen walls for pass-throughs or expanding bathrooms, filling their spaces with ersatz fireplaces and leather ducks. Now-unfashionably low 8-foot ceilings notwithstanding, Gil says he was fascinated by the way that the soft angles and floor-to-ceiling windows of Marina City’s spaces drew people outwards to their balconies, which they personalized, carving out little forts amidst the towers of the much bigger room of the commercial city.
“Marina City is such an icon, but it is also a diverse community,” Gil says. “There are old ladies on couches in the lobby talking about their medical problems, and hip people having parties on the roof. We wanted to find a way to tell the story through residents, and show that interest in it is not just for architects. It’s not a one-liner building.”
Neither should complex situations merit one-line responses. The post-modernists Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were deriding the self-seriousness of “proggy” architecture like Rudolph’s and Goldberg’s when they wrote Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Las Vegas. (But both have signed the letter in support of preserving Prentice). But the more complexity and contradiction a building can accommodate, and the more it has to say about society’s complexity, the more useful it is over time, even if it takes two more minutes to find the bathroom the first time, or it takes a little more due care than your average tilt-up office park. It might be too late for Old Prentice, but here’s hoping Iker and Larsson or similarly inspired acolytes take to the halls of gangly government centers before more irreversible decisions are made.
“Inside Marina City” runs at the Woodbury University Hollywood Gallery (WUHO), 6518 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, through Oct. 28.
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