The ultimate half-baked idea may save the Prentice building

The ultimate half-baked idea may save the Prentice building
Studio Gang Architects; Illustration, Jay Hoffman


The debate over whether to demolish Bertrand Goldberg's cloverleaf building  has two seemingly uncompromising sides. In one corner are the architectural preservationalists, who argue that the now-vacant, former Prentice Women's Hospital should receive landmark status and be adapted for a new purpose. In the other corner is the building's owner, Northwestern University, which plans to build a new biomedical research facility on that site and maintains that Prentice is not fit for a 21st century research facility - too small and quirky to retrofit (for more information about this debate, check out my earlier post).

This debate has raged on for months with little compromise made on either side, and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel remaining non-commital. But on Monday, demolition supporters got a big shot in the arm when Brendan Reilly, an alderman in the Streeterville area where Prentice stands, announced that he was leaning towards demolition. Reilly, however, tried to remain diplomatic: “I remain open to suggestions,” he told The Chicago Tribune. “And believe me, if there’s a eureka moment, I’m all ears.”

Less than 24 hours later, a 'eureka' idea was proposed. I'll let New York Times reporter Michael Kimmelman explain:

"Here is a suggestion: Build a research tower on top of Prentice. I brought up this notion with Ms. [Jeanne] Gang, probably the most celebrated architect of the current generation here in Chicago, when we stopped to look at the building the other afternoon. I was curious about a strategy of accretion, layering. Although an advocate for preservation, Ms. Gang embraced the thought and ran with it. "

Ms. Gang, a MacArthur Fellowship winner, quickly took the idea to her team at Studio Gang Architects, which drafted a proposal for a 31-story, 600,000 square-foot skyscraper atop the cloverleaf (see picture above). Is it really that simple? Did Kimmelman and Gang solve one of the city's most intractable issues by proposing an idea that would have drawn chuckles from a circle of weed-smoking architecture students? While I wouldn't dare dispute an eminent architect, a couple layman's questions come to mind: How will the cloverleaf building support a skyscraper that is exponentially heavier? How will the skyscraper handle strong lakefront winds?

Turns out, the cloverleaf building was, perhaps unintentionally, designed to support a skyscraper. Here's how Kimmelman explains it: "The serendipity of Prentice is that it is formally and structurally suited for adaptation. Its core, like the stem of a flower, provides a ready-made means to fortify the building’s foundation, reduce vibrations and install elevator shafts and other support to a tower, which could have its own access."

Not everyone is so confident that the cloverleaf building can support a skyscraper. The blog Architecture Chicago Plus has concerns:

"Is Prentice engineered to carry another tower above it, or would a massive new support structure have to be inserted inside?  The illustration shown below seems to depict the base of the Jeanne Gang tower pretty much covering the entire floorplate of Prentice as they meet.  Would Prentice become a
hollowed shell, a kind of facadectomy?"

Kimmelman claims that Gang's proposal satisfies all of Northwestern's demands: 300,000 to 500,000 square feet for research labs on open floors with high ceilings that connect to the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center next door. Gang's proposal incorporates two skywalks that link the skyscraper to the Lurie Center.

This idea is potentially better than a compromise. It may very well be a better alternative for both parties. In sustaining an important piece of architecture, Northwestern would inhabit one of Chicago's most unique buildings, a marriage of not just old and new architecture, but also convex and scalloped shapes. On the other end, architectural preservationalists would win their battle in saving the cloverleaf building. And better yet, the building's re-conception would breathe new life into a concrete structure that many consider cold and forbidding.

Save Prentice Coalition, an advocacy group trying to persuade the city to  designate the property a historic landmark, praised Ms. Gang's design in a statement made yesterday: "We  applaud the creativity Jeanne Gang has shown with this design; we wish  Northwestern would show the same openness to other possibilities."

Whether Northwestern will be open to the idea remains to be seen. The idea seemed to catch Northwestern's press spokesman Al Cubbage off guard. He wouldn't say if the University would so much as consider the proposal.

At this stage, this is nothing more than a floating idea - a "dialogue" as Gang puts it. Let's hope that Gang's proposal is legit and ends this bitter debate.

Leave a comment