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Proposals for Chicago's Prentice Women's Hospital Face Apathy from Northwestern University

The Chicago Architectural Club and the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects go on with a show of schemes from the design community, despite the university's recalcitrance.

By Fred A. Bernstein
November 16, 2012
Image courtesy Chicago Architectural Club
A scheme by Cyril Marsollier and Wallo Villacorta won first place.

Jeanne Gang could turn out to be the heroine of Prentice Women's Hospital, the 1975 Bertrand Goldberg building slated for demolition. Gang came up with one of the most credible ideas so far for saving Prentice—at the behest of New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman. Kimmelman’s October 18 article about the controversy featured Gang’s proposal for a 680-foot tower rising from Goldberg's cloverleaf-shaped structure.

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But Times readers were left wondering if other architects had ideas for saving Prentice, and if those ideas would see the light of day.

The answer can be found at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, where "Reconsidering an Icon: Creative Conversations About Prentice Women’s Hospital" opened yesterday. The show (a collaboration with Chicago Architectural Club and the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects) features winners of a Club-sponsored design competition (which drew 71 entries from 13 countries), plus 10 “invited” schemes by young Chicago architects. (224 S. Michigan Ave., thru February 8; admission free.) But the show arrives under a cloud. Northwestern University, which plans to build a biomedical research tower on the Prentice site, said through a spokesman that it has no reason to even look at the proposals.

Which is unfair not only to the competition winners, but to the judges, a panel that included John Ronan, founder of John Ronan Architects; architectural historian Kevin Harrington of the Illinois Institute of Technology; engineer William F. Baker of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and Zoe Ryan, curator of architecture and design at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The first place winner is an ingenious scheme by Cyril Marsollier and Wallo Villacorta, Chicago-based designers, in which a research tower absorbs half of the Prentice cloverleaf— with a mirrored facade appearing to complete the famous four-leaf composition. “The mirror effect is a way of preserving the iconic form while meeting the needs of the university,” said Villacorta.

The invited proposals included a scheme by Chicago-based Kujawa Architecture for preserving Prentice not as a solid but a void—a cloverleaf-shaped atrium—within a larger building.

Organizers of the show have also included the Studio Gang scheme. “After the Times article was published, the Foundation asked Jeanne Gang if it could exhibit her proposal,” said Foundation spokesman Justin Lyons. The problem is that Gang’s design—already widely publicized—may divert attention from the lesser-known entries.

But the competition winners face a much bigger challenge. Asked by Record for a comment, Northwestern spokesman Alan K. Cubbage wrote in an e-mail: "As Northwestern has stated publicly for the past decade and recently reiterated, the University's plans call for demolishing the existing structure on that site and building a new biomedical research facility. Therefore, it would not be productive for the University to review proposals that called for keeping the former Prentice building. However, we wish the Chicago Architectural Club well in its endeavor."

"That’s extremely frustrating," said first-place winner Villacorta. "It’s like they’re closing their eyes to free ideas."

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