Monday, February 24, 2014


It's been almost a year since Reconsidering An Icon, a Chicago Architectural Club exhibition organized to generate ideas and discussion around the proposed demolition of Prentice Women's Hospital.   At the time, Bertrand Goldberg's Brutalist building had been out of use and Northwestern University was planning to replace the structure with a new facility.  The exhibition paralleled a series of high profile articles, public meetings and other pleas to Save Prentice, but in spite of these efforts the building is undergoing demolition and Northwestern has chosen to move forward with the design of its new facility.

We were recently reminded of such preservation efforts (and the demonstrable viability of reuse pursued in our own proposal, Prentice Futures) as we came across Five Manhattan West, a proposal for the reuse of a late 60's Brutalist office building in New York by REX architects for client Brookfield Development.   The project presentation suggests a nuanced design approach built upon information gathering, analysis of the building's specific attributes (extremely deep floor plates, high ceilings with varied floor-to-floor dimensions, and a pyramidal building form) and the conceptual re-positioning of these characteristics into aesthetic, environmental and economic assets.  Our firm has been pursuing similar approaches to design that seek out this sort of essential context.

Image by REX Architects


As we began our research for the Prentice Women's Hospital exhibition, there were assumptions about how hospital campuses develop over time; how they might build to a critical mass, demolish portions of the campus and then rebuild again in a sort of large-scale, never-ending urban redevelopment cycle.  However, a study of Northwestern's campus development over it's entire history indicates a constant growth.  Having never fully occupied it's property it was only recently that the they were faced with the prospect of demolishing one or more structures to make way for newer, bulkier masses.  We also discovered that building typologies and densities changed over time in order to accommodate the ever-changing spatial configurations associated with the evolution of healthcare.  These changes can be seen in the timeline diagram below.  

The study suggests that Northwestern would no longer possess vacant property around the Streeterville campus on which to build and thus from this point forward would be always faced with the decision to demolish a structure with each demand for a newer, bigger facility.

Image by KA

Following site research, we uncovered Northwestern's entire program for it's new facility.  At it's most fundamental, Northwestern's program specified three primary design parameters: 1) floor-to-floor connections with the adjacent building, 2) 25,000 square feet area per floor, and 3) 15 foot floor-to-floor heights to accommodate extensive mechanical equipment.  These specific requirements were not met by Goldberg's Prentice.  Conversely, the preservationists proposed a fully restored and re-programmed Prentice Women's Hospital.  While protecting the cultural artifact, the position does not address Northwestern's proposal for a new facility.  Our proposal suggests both demands can be met and with value added.

Our reasoning began with the proposal that air rights over Superior Street be granted to Northwestern by the City of Chicago.  As an alternative to demolition, this displacement of buildable volume would have effectively allowed Northwestern to reclaim the portion of the site lost to Prentice and meet the original design parameters it set forth.  Prentice would have been preserved, Northwestern's specifications would be met and a new marker may have joined the Streeterville skyline.

Image by KA