Prentice Hospital and the Difficult-to-Acquired Taste of Brutalism

An all-star roster of architects wants the city to preserve Prentice, one of the city’s surprisingly few Brutalist structures. They make an excellent case that it’s of substantial historical, cultural, and engineering value… but even granting that, is it still worth it?

Prentice northwestern

 

On WBEZ’s Morning Shift, Lee Bey puts the battle of Prentice Hospital in the context of a greater debate: the future of “stark, cold” brutalist architecture, its divisive history in Chicago, and its implications for Prentice.

Forty years ago, one of the most visually-powerful complexes in the city opened.

[snip]

The complex was the former Kennedy-King College, which opened in 1972. Two years ago, the huge complex, vacant since 2007, was demolished with hardly a blink outside of the Englewood community where the school was located. To some, the school was a near-masterpiece. To others, it was monumental, fortress-like and harsh.

In the context of brutalism, the former “some” often means architects (many of whom have pressed the city to preserve the hospital; PDF), and the latter regular folk. And as much as I like (some) brutalist buildings, fans of the form should probably sympathize with how aspects of it translate to the public:

Brutalism did have an ethic, one meant to reveal the messy realities of construction and building systems, and to forge a new honesty about architecture and its role within the postwar era’s broader social and urban transformations.

That’s from a defense of brutalism. And it’s true that it does reveal the messy realities of construction, and it’s neat if you’re into that sort of thing, but it’s an acquired taste, just as deconstructed fast food burgers are. And “honesty about… the postwar era’s broader social and urban transformations” is, for all its value, a conversation a lot of people really don’t like having, because a lot of it is sad and deeply unpleasant. Brutalist architecture carries those scars, especially in Chicago—the city’s brutalist masterpiece, UIC, wiped out an Italian neighborhood and most of Jane Addams’s legacy.

Brutalism’s legacy is inevitably political, because so many brutalist buildings are institutional and governmental:

They were authoritatively civic in the time of Kennedy-era optimism and the Great Society, before U.S. attitudes toward the public realm changed so dramatically that it has become hard to evaluate the aesthetics on their original terms. What was once regarded as positively monumental is now seen as bureaucratic, overbearing. Through their very durability, Heroic buildings remind us of our changing attitudes, for better and for worse.

Again: buildings left to remind us of our changing attitudes are a tough sell for non-architects, harder still when many buildings of that style were a tool, not just a representation, of attitudes that have changed.

Bey’s also right that Prentice is secretly a piece of whiz-bang construction, but again, it speaks the difficulty of preserving it:

That Prentice’s unique tower, for instance, isn’t supported by interior columns, but cantilevers off the structure’s core —like branches coming off a tree trunk — is phenomenal. Even more so, given Goldberg achieved this engineering feat with his own in-house computer company running aviation software on Control Data supercomputers in the 1970 — long before computer-assisted design was commonplace.

It’s beautiful, but it’s a beauty that’s hidden within the building itself. It’s a monument to engineering, in a form that’s seen as a monument to social engineering. “Ugly” probably isn’t the right word for Prentice. It’s “weighted,” for better or worse, and so much of that depends on who you are.

In the interview, Bey asks if there’s any legacy for brutalism. There is, and it just went up on the University of Chicago campus: the new Logan Center for the Arts, and Lynn Becker has a long and brilliant tour of it at his site. It has the hard edges and stark facades of brutalism, but it speaks to its environment rather than dominating it:

I think we have much more expertise in concrete, and masonry buildings have an important place in Chicago’s history, too.  So we thought of this being a dense masonry building, poured-in-place concrete with a stone cladding, that would refer to the Gothic towers of the campus, the towers of Chicago, the silos of the Midwest.

Brutalism will survive, but to do so, it has to change.

 

Photograph: takomabibelot (CC by 2.0)

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2 years ago
Posted by Monica Reida

One thing I'd like to point out about UIC as a brutalist masterpiece is that the university has torn down a lot of the aspects that, as a whole, made it a masterpiece. For example, there were above-ground walkways that there are only remnants of as well as three buildings that have been replaced for modern teaching facilities. So even though that scaring legacy remains, it's incomplete.

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