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Top Ten Reasons to Save Prentice Hospital !

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Jan 04, 2012 02:42 AM
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by Edward Lifson ( last modified Jun 12, 2011



Some say tear it down because it's fugly.
To quote Nelson Algren:

"You may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real."
Nelson Algren on Chicago in Chicago: City on the Make (1951)

Sometimes I think the "real" scares people. Prentice is a beast. It is a maw. It pulls at you, yanks at you, makes you feel you're giving birth to something. Prentice Women's Hospital and Maternity Center (1974) will always be a massive mystery, like pregnancy itself. Bulging with mystery, containing a womb-like void inside, Northwestern University wants to tear it down to make more "efficient" use of space. But Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital is infinitely more interesting than anything they might build in its place; like a great cathedral it manifests a miracle.

Goldberg pairs the windows and the bulges of concrete, like Michelangelo paired his columns. Side-by-side, they radiate humanism.

Each window of Prentice represents a new citizen; first an individual, conceived by the pairing of two humans in love. Each individual is lined up with others to form a column of windows, which Goldberg pairs with another column; we are shown individuals, couples and groups, standing in circles, symbolic of faith.

Egg-shaped are the windows of Prentice -- each an orifice, piercing the shaft of hard concrete. The combination says fertility, an architectural trope at least as old as Roman egg and dart, also used with columns.

With Goldberg's innovative structural solution, the stacks of windows make abstract, very modern columns. They run up the side of the building, between heaven and earth, depicting what Elizabethan England called the "Great Chain of Being," stretching between heaven and earth. At the time, this belief system contradicted hierarchies of church and state. For example, in the cathedrals, some angels are even higher beings and more beautiful than others. But here at Prentice, with each window an individual, and every window the same, Bertrand Goldberg's inherent democratic and socially progressive impulses become clear. His material: common concrete -- not marble or anything elite.

It's not the concrete that's important; Goldberg hardly prioritizes it. He's expressing the space inside and forming it to best serve the purpose of bringing children into the world and making the mothers and hospital workers comfortable. Radiating the rooms from the core, which holds the nursing station, keeps every patient in direct and easy visual contact.

From the outside the windows rain down to earth as in paintings of Danae's moment of conception.

Tizian (Tiziano Vercellio) - Danae

Goldberg's corpus mysticum grows out of a Miesian right-angled base, housing the Stone Institute of Psychiatry. Women on top! The segment for women takes wing above the more square, solid, providing/supporting base, heaving, rising and lowering. Prentice Women's Hospital and the Stone Institute of Psychiatry- curves and squares, female and male, spirit and weight, mind and body.

In ancient Chinese cosmogeny, the earth is square and heaven is round. This was known as "Tian Yuan Di Fang 天圆地方;" it influenced many aspects of Chinese culture and is often seen in architecture, as at the 15th c. C.E. Temple of Heaven in Beijing.  

These ideas traveled to Japan, see, for example, the great pagoda at Nara. From Japan, Frank Lloyd Wright picked them up; think of his planters and some of his lamps and chairs.  For Wright, "the square was significant of integrity; the circle -- infinity." (FLW - A Testament, 1957.) Wright adds a cross to relate it to the "Gothic Master Diagram"- the circle of orientation which helped ancient architects orient a building plan to the sun - and used it for his logo.

The ancient Greeks, medieval thinkers, Leonardo da Vinci in his Universal Man, Louis Sullivan at the bank in Grinnell, Iowa, all attempt to square the circle, to marry the physical and the metaphysical.

Even Adolph Loos in his entry for the famous 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition picks up the theme.

In Loos's 1908 essay Ornament and Crime, he writes, "The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects." For Loos, ornament was "immoral" and "degenerate" in a modern society. The essay was influential in Bauhaus circles and helped define the ideology of Modernism

Unlike Loos's Tribune Tower, Prentice was built. Keep it! It manifests the heroic beginnings of modern life and helps us understand the era. While a somewhat late work (1974), Prentice holds the ideas of Bertrand Goldberg who was present and a participant in Modernism's early days. He studied at the Bauhaus in Germany in 1932 and then briefly worked in Germany in the then small office of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. 

Prentice's curves, which Goldberg considered humanist, enjoys a visual relationship with Chicago's Lake Point Tower (completed in 1968, based on a 1922 design by Mies for a glass-curtained skyscraper in Berlin.)

Each helps us appreciate the other, and understand Chicago's big, bold, innovative, and visionary architectural thinking in the modern era.

A humanist and social progressive, Goldberg does not crown Prentice with a kingly roof, erects no dome to symbolize heaven, and lights no lantern on top to beam light. The energy emanates from within the body of the building. He wanted no head (king or Christ) for this corpus mysticum. Instead, we get honest, democratic American architecture. As American Midwest as the grain silos Le Corbusier wanted to see on his trips to America.
Le Corbusier (1923)

The female portion of Prentice is a torso of a building: no feet, no head, no arms. We are accustomed to these fragments in sculpture, but not in architecture.

In art, the face and hands are the most expressive, thus Prentice is hard to read. But if in architectural history the head = Lord or king, feet = peasants, and hands = soldiers, then Prentice is wonderfully absent them. Think of it as a great Roman torso of a woman. Appreciate what is there; don't pine for what isn't.

Prentice is -- with the Pantheon (enter through columns, into a "womb," with cosmic navel), the Hagia Sophia, various Gothic cathedrals, and works by Louis Sullivan -- one of the greatest feminist works of architecture history, or works that embody female nature. Even as Chicago's built environment is becoming more feminine (planting flowers in median strips, transforming the urban airport Meigs Field into a nature park, etc.), the powers-that-be wish to tear it down for another businessman's box. This very mature work, by an architect who knew his history and turned it into a very original, thrilling, modern work.

While modern, Prentice builds on the past. We know of Gothic quatrefoil

and the plan of Prentice: 

The plan, and the windows show us cell division, mitosis.

Here, one becomes two, becomes four; in both plan and with the windows.

Photo via

Ours is a scientific age. So much recent architecture is based on scientific revelations in DNA, biomimicry, evolution, metabolism, etc. Prentice is an important, rather early modern example of that ongoing source of inspiration.

As Vince Michael writes in Time Tells, "The building’s seamless integration of art and science is manifest in concrete cantilevers that pushed the lobes 45 feet beyond their base, a feat that took one of the FIRST applications of computers to aid in an architectural design. And it’s gorgeous." And Vince notes that the next great building in Chicago, owes a lot to Prentice.

Back to the quatrefoil -- the Gothic period used it, the Renaissance period used it; in Chicago, before Goldberg, Louis Sullivan used it. You'd be hard pressed to name an architect more interested in fertility, conception, growth from a seed, than Louis Sullivan.

In Sullivan's work, as above at the entrance to Carson's- a feminist, rounded volume like Prentice-

designed to appeal to the new "lady-shoppers," the organic and the man made come together to make powerful architecture. At Prentice, as in Sullivan, medieval art and even Mies's Farnsworth House, we feel the tension between form and chaos.

Prentice Women's Hospital and Maternity Center is feminist too, the female part of the building stands atop the male portion- the square base. This work is about what happens when male and female come together; about conception, pregnancy, birth, growth, and the goal of raising children to be good citizens. The "female" portion looks exalted, almost heaving, rising and lowering.

Courtesy Hedrich-Blessing Collection/Chicago History Museum.

After birth, we'll spend our lives seeking to be reunited with our other half.  Think of Prentice as an architectural equivalent of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane seeking to be reunited with "Rosebud."

The valentine-shaped base of the concrete, and its movement, remind me of the "angel wings" Matisse painted on another great portrait of a strong woman.

Henri Matisse Portrait of Mlle Yvonne Landsberg 
1914. Eau- forte. Philadelphia Museum of Art

À la our great Louis Sullivan, the shape of the building begins with the most delicate of flora.

The four-leaf clover; you'd think that alone would make (former) Mayor Daley, an Irishman, partial to saving it. By the time it reaches the sky, Prentice has turned into a mighty tree, encouraging all born there and all who pass to grow up strong. And as these tree-like trunks lean on each other for support, so should we. There too, Prentice recalls those medieval "trees," holding up Gothic cathedrals.

And there you see the statue called the "Virgin of Paris" in Notre Dame, holding the baby Jesus.

In Chicago, Ceres is a protectress. She sits atop the Board of Trade, long the tallest building in our town. Here, grain is our fecundity. Goldberg's masterpiece -- Marina City -- is commonly called "the corncobs." For years, the Board of Trade was Chicago's tallest building, and from above it, Ceres looked out for our well-being, promising good crops and prosperity, reminding us both of who we are, and of forces greater than we. Like Prentice, she is faceless, we are plain Midwesterners, plain is our way in this town, and yet, we understand what Ceres says.

The landscape is America's inherent bible, Louis Sullivan and others taught us that. Think of Grant Wood's "pregnant" mounds.

We are the inheritors of one of the greatest cities of the pre-Columbian world, Cahokia, not far from Chicago.

And we still build our fertile mounds around here, in the landscape, as at Millennium Park.

Pritzker Bandshell and trellis, Frank Gehry, architect

Prentice is Chicago's "Venus" or "Woman of Willendorf" (24,000 - 22,000 B.C.E.) - both faceless fertility symbols. Is she "beautiful"?

I don't know. Important? Yes. Like Prentice, her creator was imbued with faith in fertility, she holds the stories of those she served, and the history of the place she was made for, and even if not "beautiful," she will impart her unique wisdom if you listen. Likewise, let us live with Bertrand Goldberg's "Venus of Chicago."

From a time and a place that built a masculine image of itself, Prentice stands out. "You may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real." That's what Algren meant. Prentice is great architecture, with cathedral-like power, might and majesty.

The womb-like nature of the spaces and voids are nothing short of an architectural version of Leonardo's drawing.

The windows are navels in a bulge, connecting those inside to the city, the body politic.

This building embodies Omphaloskepsis. When you turn the corner and see it, the egotism and desire-mongering of the city drop down to the ground. Omphalos = navel. Skepsis = the act of looking. (The windows of Prentice manifest both.) Omphaloskepsis "refers to excessive introspection, self-absorption, or concentration on a single issue." That's Prentice. Is that bad? No. We need that.Omphalism can be spiritual. Omphaloskepsis can be an aid to meditation.

When I see Prentice, in its raw purity, I think of higher things. Yes, it is terrifying, like a locked cathedral at night, when we need it most.

Chicago, you need Prentice now. Just as the headquarters of local companies are leaving and being bought by outsiders, so the city's built form is losing its "there-ness." Could Chicago slide into nothingness, homogenized, "no place-ness"? We need the monuments that remind us who we are. (I was born a few blocks from Prentice. Every day on the way to work, I walked past the hospital. Until one fine day scaffolding went up, and then arrived the demolition crews. Such an odd feeling it was to pass my birthplace as they razed it. A part of the story of my life went with it.)

From Wikipedia: "The four-leaf clover is an uncommon variation of the common, three-leaved clover. According to tradition, such leaves bring good luck to their finders, especially if found accidentally. According to legend, each leaf represents something: the first is for faith, the second is for hope, the third is for love, and the fourth is for luck.

I say, keep Prentice. Couldn't Chicago use some faith, hope, love and luck?

Shakespeare begins Coriolanus, set in Ancient Rome,with the fable of the belly. The belly, like Prentice, seems useless to many. It is bloated, idle and consumes resources. The belly comes even to symbolize what we think we don't need. In the fable, all the other parts of the body (like the new Northwestern Hospital buildings around Prentice) perform functions. So finally, those parts rebel. They try to stop the belly from getting any nourishment. In the end, of course, each part of the body realizes that it needs the belly, that they're all connected, and in fact, the belly nourishes them. Will we be as wise as Shakespeare would teach us to be, before it's too late?

Clearly, Prentice is more interesting and adds more to city life and the body politic than anything that will be built in its place.

The current plan is to demolish it as soon as September. As Maxwell Anderson wrote,

Oh, it's a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn't got time for the waiting game
Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I'll spend with you
These precious days I'll spend with you  


Make your voice heard. First, sign this petition to Save Prentice! 

Then join Save Prentice on Facebook. 

Landmarks Illinois shows us how to reuse the blessed thing.

Preservation Chicago writes, "At just 35 years old, Prentice has yet to be properly evaluated within Chicago's larger historical and architectural context," and they've prepared this fine video, in which experts, including Bertrand Goldberg's son Geoffrey explain how the building is unique in the world, for not just the form, but for how it was made. He also speaks of the innovations in patient-nurse-family care that this new kind of hospital and floor plan encouraged.  

And don't miss the Art Institute of Chicago's major exhibition celebrating the work of Bertrand Goldberg, including Prentice Women's Hospital and Maternity Center. Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention,” from September 10 through Jan. 8, 2012.  Really. 




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