After the live sex demonstration on the Evanston campus last year I figured Northwestern University had gone about as far as it could go on the scale of stunningly stupid behavior. I was wrong. The university’s newly launched public relations campaign to justify blowing Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital off the face of the earth arguably exceeds even the fuck-saw show.
And that makes it pretty well suited to its cause.
NU wants to take down one of Chicago’s most iconic pieces of architecture, sibling to Marina City and significant in its own right. Goldberg’s fabulous Prentice balancing act—with four massive concrete towers floating off a hidden core like so many balloons on a stick—was a groundbreaking feat of engineering and hospital design when it was built, just 37 years ago. It has already suffered some major insults: the hospital added a floor that lessens the visual impact (which is why the building looks better in old photographs than new ones), and upkeep has been neglected at least since 2007, when a new women’s hospital was opened.
The university plans to construct a research center on the Prentice site, and it hasn’t been deterred by letters like the one from William F. Baker, architectural engineer for Trump Tower and the Burj Khalifa, to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, which points out that Prentice’s concrete shell sailing 45 feet above its base “is the only example of its type anywhere in the world,” while its pioneering use of aerospace software in design was a “true game changer” that led the way for 21st-century sky grazers. Ditto a letter from all the partners at powerhouse Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, or another directed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and signed by more than 60 architects, including the likes of Jeanne Gang and Frank Gehry. That one says Prentice “stands as a testament to the Chicago-led architectural innovation that sets this city apart.”
Northwestern’s only apparent response is a PR effort aimed at convincing us that if we don’t let the university tear Prentice down we’ll be responsible for bringing medical research to a halt, leaving humanity subject to rampant disease and causing the city to lose out on $150 million a year in research funding and thousands of jobs. As if this small piece of Streeterville land were the only place where cures for cancer and ALS (they’ve got a video on that) can be discovered, and as if there weren’t a gaping, two-block-long empty lot begging for development right across the street, a site owned by NU-affiliated Northwestern Memorial Hospital. This fatuous campaign, titled Finding Tomorrow’s Cures, includes a section devoted to news coverage of NU’s plans that manages to ignore the avalanche of negative press the issue has generated.
The face Northwestern puts to this argument is the same one that had to answer for the electric saw caper. In the aftermath of that debacle, university spokesman Al Cubbage (who deserves a fat paycheck for this duty, and maybe a Jeff award) told the Sun-Times that “the University supports the efforts of its faculty to further the advancement of knowledge.” Now Cubbage is maintaining that NU has to put its new research facility on this particular piece of land because it’s right next door to the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center, and science gets done best when researchers are bumping into each other at the watercooler. Apparently oblivious to the tendency of workers in adjacent cubicles to text rather than talk, Northwestern is staking its rationale for destroying an architectural treasure on the idea that crossing the street (even via enclosed walkway) would quench the creative spark.
Northwestern’s other justification is the claim that neighbors in the area want Prentice to come down. An August 16 letter to the Tribune from NU president Morton Schapiro says that “the community group representing the surrounding Steeterville neighborhood does not support landmarking the building.” He’s referring to the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents (SOAR), which produced a neighborhood plan in 2005. But SOAR members I’ve talked with say that their plan initially did include Prentice on a list of buildings recommended for landmarking, and that it was removed only after NU got a look at the draft and met with members of the plan committee to convince them to take it off. In other words, NU, far and away the most powerful institution in the area, directly influenced the SOAR position it’s now claiming as independent support for taking the building down.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks, which could give the building the legal status that would protect it, is scheduled to meet September 6. But attempts to get the issue on the commission’s agenda have failed in the past. Even the efforts of Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation—all of whom say that Prentice not only meets but exceeds the criteria for landmark designation—have been ignored. Despite a petition with more than 3,000 signatures in support of saving Prentice, Alderman Brendan Reilly hasn’t taken a position. As Reader columnist Ben Joravsky recently pointed out, the decision maker is Rahm Emanuel: Prentice will be on the agenda if and when he wants it there. Joravsky says the situation’s a quandary for the mayor, who’s pulled between the interests of preservationists (and history) on the one hand and powerful political donors on the other.
But there’s also a golden opportunity here. If Rahm can save the architectural landmark for some kind of reuse and get Northwestern to build its lucrative research center on another piece of Streeterville ground, he comes out looking like a hero—even if he has to throw in a few concessions to sweeten the deal for NU. For a mayor who’s putting so much effort into making his city a “global destination for creativity, innovation, and excellence,” in a town whose greatest attraction is its architectural heritage, this should be a no-brainer.