Prentice Hospital and Brutalist Architecture: Part of Chicago's Architectural History

On Nov. 1, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks denied landmark status to the former Prentice Women’s Hospital, designed by Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg. The building is now eligible to be demolished.

There was support for both keeping the old Prentice and tearing it down. Famous architects with prominent works around the city such as Jeanne Gang, William F. Baker, Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano all petitioned for the building to get landmark status. The petition can be viewed here.

The building, owned by Northwestern University, was built in 1975 and was considered cutting-edge for its time. Bertrand Goldberg Associates received an award from the Engineering News Record for Distinguished Architectural and Engineering Development for the hospital’s design. The building’s unique quatrefoil floor plan encouraged interaction between patients and staff and allowed for a more family-oriented childbirth experience.

To design the hospital, Bertrand Goldberg Associates utilized innovative techniques to map and draw a 3D structure using computer technology. The structure does not require internal columns for support, and the building was built to be adaptable. Despite this, Northwestern University has argued that the building is not usable for a new research facility.

According to the Chicago Tribune, building the new research center would bring 2,000 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment.

Dr. Harry Mallgrave, professor of architectural history and theory at IIT and former practicing architect of 10 years, completely supports the decision to tear down Prentice Woman’s Hospital.

“I am not an anti-preservationist by any means, but sometimes architects build good buildings and sometimes they build very bad buildings,” Mallgrave said. “It truly is an eyesore. I can’t imagine someone enjoying looking at that thing over there.”

Prentice has been classified by media outlets like the Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine and WBEZ as an example of Brutalist architecture. However, Mallgrave does not agree with this classification for Prentice architect Goldberg’s work.

“[Brutalism] is the wrong term to use for Chicago architecture,” Mallgrave said. “I think it’s a term that gets applied to concrete architecture in general, which is unfortunate because not everything is intended to be brutal.”

As plans move forward for the demolition of Prentice, it is important to consider what the decision means for other works similar to Prentice. According to Christina Morris, a senior field officer in the Chicago office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the problem goes far beyond just the Prentice decision.

"We're seeing more and more of these buildings … essentially being threatened with the wrecking ball,” Morris said. “They're not quite old enough for people to consider them historic, but they're old enough that people don't feel like they're new and that it's time for them to be upgraded or replaced."

Prentice Hospital and Brutalist Architecture: A History

There are many buildings around Chicago that utilize the Brutalist style of architecture. Some of these buildings were also designed by Bertrand Goldberg, while others (like the many structures on the University of Illinois at Chicago) were designed by Walter Netsch.

Prentice: A Timeline