At the behest of Alderman Brendan Reilly, Northwestern University, owner of Bertrand Goldberg’s structurally innovative, visually bewitching Prentice Women’s Hospital has agreed to a stay of execution. The university had wanted to demolish the concrete cloverleaf. But now with the 60-day reprieve in hand, Landmarks Illinois will issue a feasibility study for adaptive reuse.
It is impossible to guess at the university’s intentions in agreeing to the stay. If anything, those who advocate for the building’s preservation should assume the worst, and, in the face of that, state plainly and loudly the value of the building and Golderg’s contributions to the region’s peerless 20th century architecture. In a city steeped in Miesian orthodoxy, Goldberg, like his contemporary Harry Weese, pursued a more singular path. His understanding of the structural possibilities of concrete, his explorations of curvilinear geometries, his integration of seemingly opposing programmatic needs, and his ability to make weighty materials appear light and lyrical puts him in a very special league. Goldberg’a buildings frequently outrank lesser works by Saarinen, whose works can seem flimsy in comparison. And yet Goldberg worked in a transitional moment. Even as he expended and revived the possibilities of modernism, nascent postmodernism was on the march. This accounts, somewhat, for his undervalued reputation, particularly outside of Chicago.
A monographic exhibition planned at the Art Institute will shine a much-needed spotlight on Goldberg and his lesser-known works like Prentice. It would be a tremendous loss for the region and for architecturally conservative Northwestern if the wall tag for Prentice reads, “demolished 2011.”
When it comes to preserving modernism, architects play a special role in educating and advocating for buildings about which the public may not be sentimental. We feel confident that Prentice can be saved (in New York, Albert Ledner’s quirky, porthole-covered National Maritime Union building was reborn as a trendy hotel). We urge our readers to contact Alderman Reilly and Northwestern President Morton Schapiro to save Golberg’s soaring and strange creation.