I know it's probably down a bit on your crisis-du-jour list, but the issue of possible landmark designation for Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital appears to be coming to a head. Word on the street is that the fix is in and Prentice is toast.
This is no time for modesty. The decision, ultimately, is entirely yours, and before your thumb proclaims final public judgement, I wanted to make one last pitch.
Some things about the debate are incontrovertible.
- Northwestern University and Northwestern Hospital are both world-class institutions.
- Northwestern University wants to build an ambitious new Research Lab
- This project will employ thousands, and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Chicago's economy
- The work done in this Research Lab has the potential of finding cures and treatments that will create better medical outcomes and save lives.
- There is a magic patch of land in Chicago. It is magic because, although there are two vacant blocks directly across the street, and other opportunities across the large number of properties controlled by Northwestern, this patch of land is the only place in Streeterville, Chicago, or the universe on which Northwestern's Research Lab can be built. It just so happens that this patch of land is the site of Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital. Northwestern would have us believe that if they are not allowed to circumvent legal process and destroy this landmark-quality structure, that new Research Lab, its thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment will vanish into thin air, never to be seen again. And, if we are to believe Northwestern's more insidious intimations, many will die from cures never to be discovered.
As someone who knows his way around Washington, Mr. Mayor, you know this kind of firm well - beltway lobbyists that offer one-stop shopping. They have Republicans. They have Democrats. They can argue one way, or they can argue other. It just depends on who cuts the check. Whatever you want to be true, no matter the reality, they will, for a price, create the appearance of it being true, through such tools of the trade as biased polls, astroturf support and misleading ads. Key clients are Big Oil, Big Pharma, and Big Chemical. According to The Nation, while Purple Strategies' staff may be cross-party, its activities are not. Purple Strategies has received over $43 million to help Republican candidates foster the impression that Barack Obama is not the President who stopped America from falling into another Great Depression, who killed Bin Laden, and created the health care reform that had eluded all his predecessors, but a feckless, corrupt bumbler who hates America and wants to turn it into a socialist, Muslim state. If you liked the kind of poison Joe Ricketts wants to bankroll, Mr. Mayor, you'll love what Purple Strategies has come up with for Northwestern.
Northwestern has come up with a handful of architects who support destroying Prentice. No need to demonize; they're good people. But the Save Prentice Coalition has come up with a coalition of many of the most distinguished architects, not just in Chicago, but throughout the world, all of whom are urging you to save Prentice.
And if you're tempted to dismiss their opinion because they've got no skin in the game, I would ask you to consider what these architects have created for Chicago . . .
Krueck and Sexton:
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien:
From this physical evidence, I would leave it it to you, Mr. Mayor, as to whose judgement on matters of architectural quality are the more reliable.
I respect the judgement of people like Jeanne Gang and John Ronan, David Woodhouse and Jack Hartray, and their colleages, because, unlike Northwestern, they have a proven track record of serving their clients while adding to the cultural capital of the city. Northwestern knows only how to destroy and replace, with the kind of faceless mediocrity that sucks all the air out of the very idea of inviting, liveable urban space.
As someone who knows how the game is played, I'm sure you were amused by the press release where Northwestern promised they would do it right this time and hold an architectural competition if they're allowed to destroy Prentice. What - if they can't, they'll put up another piece of crap just for spite? And I'm sure you noticed that in the very next sentence, they took away what they had just given, proclaiming they wouldn't in any way be bound by the results of that competition. But they promised to involve a Chicago architect no matter what. Well, they've already had Chicago architects involved in most of their buildings, and the results are not reassuring.
I'm sure you've walked the streets of the Northwestern campus. They're a depressing place, one anonymous building after another, often with dead-windowed walls facing the sidewalks. It's a good thing most people being rushed to Northwestern are looking up at the ambulance ceiling, because the view of the unrelenting drabness out their window might convince them life wasn't really worth living, after all.
Along with the old Furniture Mart, Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital is the only architecturally distinctive marker in the Northwestern hospital district. And those markers are essential.
Marina City, the Wrigley Building, Sears (oops) Willis Tower, the Chicago Theater, Aqua, BP Bridge and Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, and many more like them. These are the buildings that form the face of the Chicago - in newspapers, magazines, films, videos, books, on the internet, in vacation snapshots - all across the globe. Out of necessity, there's seems always to be a new slogan for Chicago - "The City That Works", "Second to None". They come and they go, but the images of Chicago make them almost superfluous. The great buildings of Chicago are the pictures worth a thousand words. They're the thing that builds and sustains the brand of Chicago throughout the world. And Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital is a key component of that brand.
I understand politics. (I once ran against Tony Laurino for alderman in the 39th, and I got more votes than any opponent he ever had. [He still crushed me like a bug. And then, to top if off, he mapped all the precincts I carried out of his ward.]) But it's wrong for Northwestern to hijack the legal process carefully put in place to consider landmark designations, simply because they are powerful and connected. If I were Joe Schmo who wasn't happy about my house being in a proposed landmark district, I wouldn't be able to get the Landmarks Commission to yank consideration of that proposal from the Commission's agenda. But that's exactly what Northwestern did, and they've kept it off, month after month for over a year and a half, to buy Northwestern more time to mount a P.R. offensive to counter the grass-roots campaign to save Prentice.
We are told this was to allow "talks" about Prentice to continue, but it's unclear how many and what kind of "talks" have actually taken place. I know it's perceived to be the "Chicago Way", but frankly, it is disturbing that when you were quoted about ongoing talks on Prentice at a recent press conference, the only participants named were Northwestern and those already on record as opposing designation. Bonnie McDonald of Landmarks Illinois has stated neither she or any other advocates have been invited to these closed-door meetings.
You know the story of the Eiffel Tower. How it was built as a temporary structure for the 1889 World Fair. How a lot of the best people considered it a blot and an eyesore - just like Prentice - and relished the idea of it's being demolished at the end of its original 20-year permit. It survived by the skin of its teeth, but could anyone today imagine Paris without it? Paris is at the top of world-class cities because it doesn't trash its history. When the Gare d'Orsay was no longer needed as a railroad depot, it wasn't wantonly destroyed. It was saved and renovated into one of the city's great museums, the Musee d'Orsay.
Prentice isn't quite as prominent as the Eiffel Tower, but the dynamic is the same, with the additional overlay of a great Chicago institution willing to blackmail an entire city to bend it to its will. Allowing Northwestern to destroy Prentice is not good politics, and it's not good urban planning.
The explanations of why Prentice Hospital is a major work of architecture have been made many times, and very eloquently. I'm sure you've read them, so I won't repeat them here. Landmarks Illinois has already documented a number of ways Prentice could be effectively reused. Drawing upon the expertise of Chicago's real estate community, a viable plan could easily be found. Northwestern is crammed to the gills with brilliant people, and it will have no problem finding an alternative path if Prentice gets the landmark designation it deserves.
The choice is between short-term expediency and long term vision. Northwestern will always be able to take care of itself. Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital, and Chicago's architectural legacy, which lack a $7 billion endowment, need a little help right now. They need someone to run the kind of interference that keeps Chicago from becoming known as the city that lets its world-class riches slip through its fingers.