Tuesday, October 16, 2012

An open letter to Mayor Emanuel on Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital - a few truths versus one Big Lie

Dear Mr. Mayor:

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.
One key thing however, is quite controvertible: one astounding lie that Northwestern is working overtime  to couple with the truths listed above:
  • 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.
The claims about this magic patch of land are so outrageously dishonest that any objective analysis would dismiss them without a second thought.  Except that Northwestern has committed millions to an increasingly desperate and meretricious campaign to influence public opinion and provide cover to its actions.  For this campaign, they have turned to a firm called Purple Strategies.

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 . . .

Jeanne Gang:
Frank Gehry:

John Ronan:
Renzo Piano:

Krueck and Sexton:

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien:
.  .  . and compare it to what we've gotten from Northwestern:

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. 


Lynn Becker


Anonymous said...


Jibba said...

An excellent and comprehensive editorial on the issue. We are all thankful to have your voice around, Lynn.

Unknown said...

I agree wholeheartedly with what is said here. Mr. Mayor, you simply cannot let this building be demolished. There is no reason whatsoever why this big institution cannot build their new facility right across the street. Period!

Anonymous said...


Lynn Becker said...

Did you ever notice that people with nothing intelligent to say think writing it in ALL CAPS disguises the fact?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your continued championing of preservation, Mr. Becker.

Meta Brown said...


The real magic is in people, isn't it? It's in people who don't need to tear something down before they can build something up, who can give something to the community without first taking something away, and who can create a place for themselves in this world without deflating the role of others.

Thanks for saying the right things in such an eloquent way.

a.kalf said...

I´m from The Netherlands and happened to read Michael Kimmelman about the problem and then the solution by Ms.Gang. I believe that to be a brilliant and uplifting solution, as if the Cloverleaf constructing was put there for her to finish with the proposed design as such to show its full glory again today. It will make a merger so very, very special and in a time when we, all over, will have to do things differently. Recognition of the past and the present together make a bright and fruitful future. That Mayor Emanuel will listen to you, the people, instead of the institution.

Unknown said...

As an architect I could not disagree with your premise more.

The buildings you sight are iconic objects designed by star-chitects. Northwestern’s buildings depicted in your photos are well-mannered “fabric” or background buildings designed by competent, local architects. They are well detailed with a good sense of proportion and a human/street scale (something lacking in prentice and Aqua).

Prentice, in my opinion, does not have the degree of architectural merit that warrants intervention. Goldberg is a local figure, not an international, architectural figure. The two architecture schools I attended (both out of state) made no mention of him. Nor can he be found in any of the 25+ books I have an 20th Century architecture. His buildings are novel, but not all of them deserve to be landmarked.

The preservationists need to find a sympathetic soul with deep pockets who is willing to purchase this building. Then they can do with it what they wish. But to try to tell this university what they should do with their own property is Ludacris. If it had architectural merit, I’m sure the folks at Northwestern would recognize it and cherish it as such.

As a final note, the photo of Aqua shows its true shortcomings as a piece of sculpture that can only be experienced at certain angles in certain light. You photo shows what a behemoth experience this building is from most angels, most times of year.

Lynn Becker said...

Actually, Edward, your comments prove my point rather than counter it. As someone based in Iowa, I doubt you live the Northwestern buildings as we do. They are not "well-mannered"; they are oppressive and blank. If a district is made completely out of "background buildings", they are no longer background, but foreground, in this case presenting a soul-deadening mediocrity unbecoming an institution of Northwestern's stature.

In terms of books, maybe you need to expand your library. A cursory search finds Goldberg in books as varied as Innovations in Concrete, 500 Notable Buildings from the 10 Century to Present , The Bauhaus and America , to Key Urban Housing of the 20th Century and Spatial Planning for a Sustainable Singapore.

I'm sure you dismiss the recent Goldberg show at the Art Institute because it was in Chicago, but I would find it harder to dismiss Goldberg dans la ville, an exhibition that took place in Paris.

And, no, preservationists do not - and should not - have to purchase every building they want to preserve. That position has been tested in the courts, and rejected. There is clearly designed legal process and criteria to determine whether or not a structure merits landmark protection. Northwestern has gone behind closed doors to subvert that legal process and make sure that, in regards to Prentice, it never takes place.

I'm sure you're a very good architect, but I hope you'll understand that, under these circumstances, I'm more likely to turn for advice to people like Herzog and DeMeuron, Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Tadao Ando, Renzo Piano, and others of their caliber across the world, all of whom support preserving Prentice. I turn to them not because they are "stars", but because they have proven, time and again, that they know what great architecture is.

Anonymous said...

Lynn Becker said...
Did you ever notice that people with nothing intelligent to say think writing it in ALL CAPS disguises the fact?




Lynn Becker said...

Guess you didn't notice I have responded. If you stopped shouting, you might have time to learn how to read.

Edward J. Shannon NCARB said...

Actually Lynn, I have only live in Iowa for two years. I grew up in the suburbs of Oak Park and River Forest and have spent the bulk of my career in the Chicago area, with a stint in San Francisco. Waterloo, where I reside is a small city (akin to Rockford or Elgin) with urban issues. I live an work in a downtown loft and am personally involved in the revitalization of the city. So, I DO understand urbanism. I am not against Prentice being saved. I just don't feel it has the merit, as the preservationists claim, that justifies intervention. Moreover, like many buildings of that era, it does not represent good ubanism. It has a weak base, and does not relate to the streetscape. The same could be said with Aqua! I can forgive Prentice for this shortcoming, but Aqua is inexcusable, as most architects had learned from the mistakes of the sixties and seventies. In fact, NU's building's do show a good sense of human scale by providing a relationship to the street. However instead of being Iconic objects,they are fabric buildings, which is just as important in contributing to the quality of life on the street. Finally, I NEVER said that preservationsists, have to pay for every endeavor. There are definetely instances that warrant financial intervention. Marina City would be one. It is a beloved and recognized Chicago Icon. Prentice is not!

Anonymous said...

On November 16, the Chicago Architecture Club is hosting an exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, 224 S. Michigan Ave, which will feature speculative proposals from ten Chicago architecture firms.
More information at CAC:

Anonymous said...

Put up or shit up. You and your ilk should have offered to buy the building at market price. Instead, you want to force an owner to do what you want. There is only one legal process, buy the property or let the owners do as they please.

As to the rest of your political nonsense, who cares what who who Purple Strategies is? President Obama has nothing to do with this decision.

Lynn Becker said...

Ah, another truther. As usual, you have no idea what you're talking about and you think you have the right to just make things up.

No, there is not "one legal process". No, you don't have to buy every building that's landmarked. There is a legal process for designating and protecting landmarks, which has been affirmed all the way up the Supreme Court.