20 Jul 2011
Chicago is an old town, sorta.
I say that because technically speaking, Chicago’s buildings are 30, 60, 80 years old and only a small percentage can claim to be more than 100. Chicago is old in the sense that the United States is very much still a young nation. Our oldest cities and towns barely crack 200 years and if we’re really honest, most American cities in their current incarnation, are probably less than 60 years old. Compare this to European cities which can boast 200, 300, 400 years even with various invasions, razings, fires and plagues.
[Photo by Genie Bae]
As a relatively new (old) city in a relatively new nation, it’s not surprising that we’re still trying to figure out what to save and what to get rid of. What can be considered architecture that is significant enough or old enough to be preserved? In fact, what is the difference between a Louis Sullivan building, Soldier Field, University of Illinois Chicago and Prentice Women’s Hospital? Why is an old bank on the west side of Chicago worth saving, but a Modernist icon, not saving? There are many people in the building industry on both sides of this argument, including many green professionals who argue that preservation and reuse are the most conscientious use of our natural resources.
To briefly (and in a very, very simplified manner) break down the argument for preservation versus the argument against preservation:
Preservationists believe that the cultural legacy of a population lies in its significant buildings. The building itself is as much of a part of the character of a city as the function it serves. For example, Prentice is not just a women’s hospital. Prentice is a unique example Modernist architecture that was the dominant building style of Chicago in the late 20th century. Prentice is part of Chicago’s legacy as the preeminent Modernist city of the 20th century.
Non-preservationists believe that buildings are not works of art, but personal property that must fulfill a function. One the property no longer fulfills it’s function, the owner is within their rights to alter or demolish the property. In the case of Prentice, the building was small and functioned poorly as a hospital. The rooms were impractically sized and the mechanical systems were outdated. Both hospital staff and patients were dissatisfied with the aging structure.
In these debates, oftentimes, it comes down to developers versus preservationists. In most cases, the preservationists lose. In a city like Chicago, where the citizenry inherited a vast architectural legacy, issues of preservation are constantly in the public eye. The public is quick to grasp the value of Louis Sullivan’s ornamentation on State St. but slower to understand that Bertrand Goldberg’s spare, concrete Prentice Women’s Hospital is just as preservation worthy.
Architects are often loathe to weigh in publicly on the value of preservation out of fear of losing future commissions. Even architects who work within the preservation community often choose to stay silent when architectural landmarks are threatened, preferring to stay away from controversy and working on projects that have already received landmark status. It’s a lose-lose situation for owners and architects who battle over preservation. In the case of Prentice, what are the chances that the owner, Northwestern University, is ever going to engage the services of a well-known architect again? Why would an owner, take the chance of hiring an architect to design an iconic building and in 30 years, possibly face another preservation battle? Losing a potentially rich client such as Northwestern University is a loss to the architects everywhere. Losing a landmark like Prentice is a loss to everyone.
Which brings us to the question, who decides “What is historically significant and What is a Landmark.”
This is usually where government intervenes, only Chicago has a new, unpredictable (also famously curt and foulmouthed) mayor for the first time in 25 years and the landmarks commission, for the first time, is completely devoid of preservationists and architects. In the most recent hearings, Prentice was not even on the agenda for the committee despite a recent swell of public protest. This could possibly be taken as a sign that there is a new pro-business sheriff in town regarding Chicago’s architectural legacy.
As the United States ages and more cities face preservation issues exacerbated by issues of climate change, developer, architect and preservationist battles are most likely going to increase in scale and frequency. While Prentice is the most recent public battle happening in Chicago, smaller scale battles are happening in communities throughout America. When you hear about towns fighting to preserve their “small town character,” it’s essentially the same preservation argument on a different scale.
I see both sides of the argument. Having worked in new construction, commercial interiors and in historic preservation, I am torn. I know that oftentimes, the flashiest buildings with the biggest name architects are the ones that are saved while the lesser known, but equally beautiful buildings by smaller architects are forgotten. I am encouraged when I see brilliant adaptive reuse schemes and am reminded that the key to saving our old buildings is to make sure they are continually in use and vital to the community.
In the case of the Prentice Women’s Hospital, it may be too late.
[Photo by Jim Kuhn]
A special thanks to Genie Bae for sitting at the helm today. You can follow her musings on Twitter @EBArchDesign and please visit her website for more of her writings.