Jeanne Gang’s proposal to build a tower above Prentice hospital is an original idea, which isn’t to say it’s a good one yet or can’t be reworked into a good one. Bertrand Goldberg’s design makes upward expansion easy. The core of the building can support a much taller building than it does today. Gang drew up a 31-story tower springing from it. It’s a quick sketch and not a finished proposal, so a detailed evaluation isn’t possible. The initial renderings, however, look jarring and awful. The distinct shapes of Goldberg’s cantilevered cloverleafs are overwhelmed by the mass of the addition. The original building looks like a mistake, as if someone pulled the building up from its foundations and exposed an odd structural underpinning. Already straining to stand out from the towers of Northwestern’s hospital campus all around it, Goldberg’s cloverleaf appears even more lost in the glass.
It’s certain that Gang can improve the design. She’s a tactile architect greatly sensitive to materials. Surely she can devise a better interaction with Goldberg’s cement forms. Her design’s main value in its current state is as a concept: a way out of the impasse between preservationists who want to preserve the building and Northwestern University, which wants to demolish it to make way for a research lab. An architect of Gang’s stature buys time–for the mayor to delay his final decision and for preservationists to present a viable plan to preserve the original hospital. It provides cover for the Streeterville alderman to continue to block the demolition.
Most of all, if Gang’s design is ultimately built, the success gives credence to a set of preservationist arguments with implications beyond a Prentice: that late Modernism is no longer the architectural equivalent of go go boots and that hospital design can take another form besides big box institutionalism. If Prentice goes down, then any building from that era will remain imperiled.