The Phallus and the Womb in Chicago Architecture: Prentice Hospital and the Sears Tower

The unfortunate destruction of Prentice Hospital for Women has me thinking about metaphor in Chicago Architecture. What do great buildings tell us about ourselves and about our culture; how is cultural meaning embedded in their design and how does this meaning – whether consciously or not – play out in how we embrace or reject great buildings in the end?

Consider Bertrand Goldberg’s curvy design of Prentice Hospital for Women vs the steel boxes of the Sears Willis tower built at around the same time. Goldberg created Prentice with interlocking womb-like human communities organically connecting on each floor. It was intended as a place for women, and many have written eloquently about the design’s relationship to the female form.

But beyond that, was Goldberg’s use of poured concrete, his design engineering, his concepts – all of which were innovative and exciting. Harbingers of new possibilities in the way we could think about buildings and how they are made.

Goldberg’s famous Marina ‘corn cob’ Towers, thankfully remain, testament to the genius of his thought. But you have to wonder why this building, with its twin spires puncturing the sky is preserved, and the human-scale, womb-like one is lost.

Northwestern’s destruction of Prentice hospital has given rise to a lot of publlc puzzlement and dismay. Preservationist guru Vince Michael offers this bemused explanation for why Northwestern was so intent on its destruction:

“…  if you take any American family photo album and look at 1975, people will look their worst, regardless of age or gender, due to a perfect storm of clothing fashion disasters that coalesced that year. So maybe people are remembering – with appropriate horror and denial – what they were wearing when Prentice was built.”

But actually, the early 1970’s were banner years for architecture in Chicago. The Sear’s tower with its opened cigarette pack design was completed in 1973, just a couple of years before Prentice.

Goldberg was pressing up against boundaries creating his ‘round’ buildings, utilizing new technologies – like aeronautics software – to drive his designs. Meanwhile across the way, Bruce Graham’s Sears Tower – the tallest gathering of steel tubes in the world was all brand new.

Preservationists didn’t want us to lose this environment of combined innovation; see it carried forward solely in picture books and stories. Comparing Prentice to Lake Point Towers, another great Chicago building, Edward Lifson, said:

“Each [building] helps us appreciate the other, and understand Chicago’s big, bold, innovative, and visionary architectural thinking in the modern era.”

Chicago really should have done more to prevent the loss of Prentice. And, not that I’m keeping score, but so far looks like we’ve got phallus one, womb zero.


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