Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital: No Lessons Learned?

30 Oct

Eighty-one years ago, Chicago demolished a priceless piece of architectural history. Today, it looks like we may be about to make the same mistake twice.

Prentice Hospital shortly after it was completed in 1975. Credit: Landmarks Illnois

This Thursday, November 1st, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks will meet to deliberate on the possible landmarking of Bertrand Goldberg’s 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital.  The fight to protect Prentice has been led by the Save Prentice Coalition who has made an exceptional case for reusing the structure.  In the opposite corner is the property’s owner, Northwestern University, who is ready to demolish it, purportedly to build a new research facility on the site. The community’s alderman is unopposed to demolition and today we’ve learned our own mayor is willing to go along with Northwestern’s plans.

It’s hard to believe that a city famous for its world-class modern architecture would happily throw away one of its most significant buildings by one of its most celebrated architects. Then again, we have done it before.

William Le Barron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building. Credit: Wikipedia

In 1931, the Home Insurance Building, designed by William Le Barron Jenney and constructed in 1884 at the northwest corner of Adams and Clark Streets, was demolished without much opposition. In fact, according to the Chicago Daily Tribune  it came down with much excitement (see the 1931 article below), replaced with Graham, Anderson, Probst & White’s Field (now Bank of America) Building.

Jenney’s Home Insurance Building may not have been much to look at but underneath that stack of Classical colonnades was something very new for 1884: a skeleton of cast iron and steel. Instead of relying on thick exterior bearing walls to hold the building up (a method taken to the extreme in the bulging base of Chicago’s Monadnock Building), Jenney constructed a metal frame that supported the building almost exclusively from within, turning the building’s façade into a wrapping or “skin” that simply hung off the inner structure. This innovation was the absolute pinnacle of nineteenth-century building technology, an achievement that served as a jumping-off point for the modern skyscraper.

Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 22, 1931

The Home Insurance Building was believed to be so important that in 1931, the American Institute of Architects performed a novel kind of post-mortem on the old girl, poking around the Home Insurance Building’s innards as she came down. At the end of the delicate dissection these early architectural pathologists declared that Chicago had in fact just torn down the world’s first fireproof metal-framed skyscraper.

And now, guess what?  Chicago officials are giving their shortsighted support for the demolition of yet another irreplaceable piece of architectural history: Bertrand Goldberg’s 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital.

Prentice Hospital’s curved concrete bays, achieved using an early version of computer-aided design. Credit: Docomomo

Like the Home Insurance Building, Prentice Hospital was another architectural first. In developing Prentice, Goldberg was among the earliest architects to use the cutting-edge technology of computer-aided design or “CAD” in the building design process.  Historian Susannah Ribstein writes in Docomomo’s online information fiche that the complicated digital finite element analysis software Goldberg’s office used to design the hospital’s cantilevering concrete bays “had probably never before been used on a structure as large or complex as Prentice.”  In using freshly-developed CAD software in his design for Prentice, Goldberg created a new paradigm for architects across the world. Whereas headache-inducing engineering challenges were once avoided, complexity could now be embraced and celebrated.

Prentice Hospital today. Credit: John Cramer

The benefits CAD afforded Bertrand Goldberg as he designed Prentice Hospital – a quicker design schedule, easier coordination of his architectural documents with engineering drawings, less calculation mistakes and, most important of all, the simplification of complicated building systems – are seen by today’s architects as indispensable tools for doing what they do. Without CAD, ambitious designs by the likes of Frank Gehry and Jeanne Gang would be nothing but impossible daydreams (it’s not surprising then that these and many more prominent architects have lent their voices to the effort to save this groundbreaking structure). Prentice Hospital helped show the world the infinite possibilities afforded by computer-aided design and in the process led to a complete transformation of the architecture and design industries which today rely almost exclusively on digital design means.

It’s hard today to overstate the revolutionary role that large computer-generated structures like Chicago’s Prentice Hospital played in the reinvention of  the fields of architecture, engineering, and design.  Prentice Hospital reminds us all of the extraordinary times in which we live and the incredible feats of  architecture and engineering early digital technology made possible.

Home Insurance Building (1884-1931), Prentice Hospital (1975-2012?)

William Le Barron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building and Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital were both watershed moments in the history of building design and reinforced Chicago’s fabled pedigree of architects and architecture pushing the technological limits of their age. Let’s not make the same mistake we made demolishing the Home Insurance Building in 1931. Let’s keep a truly significant piece of architecture around for future generations to use, to study, and to enjoy.


One Response to “Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital: No Lessons Learned?”

  1. Kim Bookless October 30, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

    Fantastic article with so many great points, John. Shared on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.

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