Architecture Stars Speak Up to Save Bertrand Goldberg's Brutalist Women's Hospital in Chicago

Architecture Stars Speak Up to Save Bertrand Goldberg's Brutalist Women's Hospital in Chicago
Prentice Women's Hospital
(Jeremy M Farmer via Flickr)

The battle never ends for architectural preservationists. Last year, Northwestern University announced plans to raze the 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital, a cantilevered, concrete building that once served as Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s obstetrics center. Preservationists immediately rallied to have the clover-shaped edifice landmarked, releasing a 16-page report detailing no fewer than three schemes to reuse the old hospital. Though landmark status was never granted, Northwestern decided to refrain from demolition until plans for a new construction were finalized. Now, a year later, renewed talks of demolition have prompted preservationists to take action once again, this time attracting the support of prominent figures in the industry, including celebrity architect Frank Gehry and MacArthur "genius grant" winner Jeanne Gang.

Last Wednesday, more than 60 architects, including Gehry, Gang, and the partners at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, co-signed an open letter to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. “The legacy of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital is unmistakable,” read an excerpt quoted in the Architect’s Newspaper. “It stands as a testament to the Chicago-led architectural innovation that sets this city apart.” Meanwhile, the Washington-based National Trust for Historic Preservation has launched an effort to acquire 25,000 signatures from Chicago-area residents to stop the wrecking ball.

Designed by Bertrand Goldberg, who is also behind Chicago’s iconic Marina City (the famed “corncob” towers on the cover of Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"), Prentice Women’s Hospital was a groundbreaking architectural achievement, the first to derive its form from a computer-generated model. In a time when Mies van der Rohe’s glass-box modernism dominated the Chicago cityscape, Goldberg stuck to his Brutalist guns. The architect employed modeling techniques once pioneered by the aeronautics industry to generate the expressive shape of Prentice’s blossoming concrete shell.

But beyond its notable synthesis of form and structure, Prentice represents a thoughtful, humanist approach to hospital design. In an op-ed pleading to save the building, Landmarks Illinois president Bonnie McDonald and AIA Chicago vice president Zurich Esposito praised the way the design incorporated then-new ideas about women and childbirth: “The building’s floor plan made a family-oriented childbirth experience possible; fathers could be present for labor and delivery. In addition, the floor plan allowed nurses to be closer to patient rooms and have better lines of sight, improving women’s care.”

This is perhaps why Prentice — one of many embattled Brutalist buildings around the world — seems to many to be a particularly critical target for preservation. The former women’s hospital makes clear the oft-overlooked moral impetus of Brutalism, the noble ambitions that turn a raw concrete eyesore into a hallmark of virtuous design.