Few cities can rival Chicago for architectural masterpieces, but the past year hasn’t been stellar for preservation. Destruction of the Brutalist Prentice Women’s Hospital started in October, and last week a demolition permit was granted for the mid-century modern Cuneo Memorial Hospital.
While both are distinct buildings — Prentice a 1975 concrete wonder of aeronautics-inspired design by celebrated architect Bertrand Goldberg, Cuneo a 1957 glassy curve of windows and stone by the much less-known Edo Belli — neither was landmarked. Prentice, owned by Northwestern University, was rejected in 2012; Cuneo met the same fate from the Chicago Commission on Landmarks in August 2013.
Coincidentally, both architects studied with Mies Van Der Rohe, who also has work in Chicago, but they took his clean Modernism in different directions. On Prentice, the AIA Guide to Chicago says: “At street level, this is just another modern hospital building, but above the fifth story is a curving concrete shell that seems to have landed like a spaceship on the steel-and-glass podium.” (The Cuneo Hospital, alas, gets no listing in the architectural compendium.)
There is some irony in the fact that Goldberg designed the lower part of his hospital to be fluid in order to allow for changing times, while the upper cylindrical nine stories were meant for patients and nurses; the odd form was actually aimed at minimizing energy costs and the distance between patients and caretakers. Now a new, gleaming, and sterile construction will start going up at the beginning of 2015. While Prentice wasn’t Goldberg’s only hospital — he also designed them in Boston, Phoenix, Milwaukee, and other cities around the country — or even his most iconic building in Chicago — that goes to his futurist Marina City — there’s nothing else like it. The design relied on early 3D computer modeling, something Goldberg was on the cutting edge of through his adaptation of software used in aeronautics.
Cuneo doesn’t have the same profile as Prentice, but the continued demise of these Modernist constructions in Chicago is worrisome. As Preservation Chicago Director Ward Miller told the Chicago Tribune, “the city has been traditionally loath to landmark boarded-up structures that need rehabbing.” Both hospitals have their proponents as well as those who think the time has come for turning the disused structures into something better, even if that means razing for a new start. Yet this trend against landmarking could mean losing some of the unsung gems of the city’s rich architectural landscape.