Friday, September 14, 2012

"The most significant piece of architecture that we own": NU Professor Gary Alan Fine weighs in on Prentice

Posted By on 09.14.12 at 04:12 PM

Prentice Benjamin Lipsman
  • Benjamin Lipsman
After receiving two e-mails from Northwestern University that asked for support for its plan to tear down Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital without fully explaining what was at stake, NU professor Gary Alan Fine was moved to write the following letter to university President Morton Schapiro, Senior Vice President Eugene Sunshine, and Eugene Lowe, assistant to the president. Fine, who e-mailed the letter two weeks ago, hasn't yet received an official reply. Here's the letter:


Dear Morty, Gene, and Gene,

I write to you with good fellowship, but with real concern. In the last day I have received two emails suggesting that I should support NU’s plans for demolishing the Goldberg/Prentice Hospital building in order to construct a new facility for Bio-Medical Research. I believe that it would be a real mistake for Northwestern to tear down one of the most important pieces of Chicago architecture for this purpose. This is an architectural treasure that has been bequeathed to the University, certainly the most significant piece of architecture that we own. We have an obligation to architectural history and to the visual face of this architectural city. When a University has such a treasure, whether it is a Kahn building at Penn or the Wright buildings at Florida Southern, the institution has a special obligation. So it is with Northwestern and Prentice Hospital.

Let me emphasize that I do not oppose the building of a biomedical research facility, nor do I know the possibilities of repurposing the current structure (it is primarily the façade of the building that is at issue), but I do know that a great university is inspired by great architecture.

Further, I am concerned because the messages that I received do not adequately state what is at issue. The issue is not merely the technical issue of landmarking, but rather the destruction of this vitally important mid-century modernist building. It is one of the most crucial facades in Chicago. The faculty, the students, and the alumni deserve to know that the destruction of the Goldberg site is at issue, a building, as important in its way, as the Robie House in Hyde Park. Let us have a real, serious community discussion about our university’s responsibility.

To this end, let me propose the following modest suggestions:

1) That Northwestern arrange a forum in the fall in which presentations can be made pro-and-con the destruction of the Goldberg/Prentice site. I am sending this email to [several colleagues], who would all be excellent panelists, should they wish. I am also cc’ing the very fine organization, Preservation Chicago, which should be involved, and with which, I hope, Northwestern has been discussing their plans. Another important group in this regard is Bauhaus Chicago, which focuses on mid-century modernist architecture.

2) Another email be sent to faculty and alumni (and the board) explaining fully what is at issue. I am NOT suggesting that this email state the anti-destruction case, but only that both positions be explained so that the Northwestern community can make a deliberately and considered decision as to whether they wish to communicate their opinions. How can we do this, if we are not informed as to why the demolition is being opposed. Let us treat this as a teachable moment in which good people disagree.

3) If Northwestern has not been in contact with Preservation Chicago and similar groups, I propose that this happens. I will be willing to facilitate, if needed. Surely there can be some good use for the Goldberg/Prentice site, and, if necessary, another site can be found for the state of the art bio-medical facility.

My oldest son, Todd, is now actively involved in preservation issues in New York City attempting to preserve the remaining tenements of “Little Syria,” the old Lebanese quarter — the Lower West Side of Manhattan — two blocks from the WTC, so I have a direct and warm interest in the crucial importance of preservation of the visual culture of cities. Let us collectively find a way to conduct state of the art research while not demolishing buildings that were state of the art architecture.

With warm regards,

Gary

Gary Alan Fine

Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Sociology
John Evans Professor of Sociology
Northwestern University

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