The Absent Column: documenting the preservation battle that may be Modernism's Penn Station moment
Brutalist buildings are under threat everywhere; Hospital buildings are a particularly tough thing to save. The Prentice Women's Hospital Building, designed by Bertrand Goldberg, was a cause célèbre in the preservation movement, and its loss has been described by Michael Allen as "Modernism's Penn Station Moment."
The preservation movement announced its presence to the nation with an effort to save the Beaux Arts-style Pennsylvania Station in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The loss of Penn Station showed Americans that their heritage was systematically at risk. Modern architecture needs its own “Penn Station moment” to dramatize what is at stake and encourage action. The arguments against buildings remain strikingly the same as ever.
Journalist Nathan Eddy, a graduate of the Northwestern University that is demolishing the building, has created a short film, The Absent Column, that documents the battle to save the building.
Modern architecture, and the fight for its value in the world, is brought into sharp focus in this documentary examining the battle over the preservation of former Prentice Women’s Hospital in downtown Chicago, designed by master modern architect Bertrand Goldberg.
The owner of the building is Chicago institution Northwestern University, which intends to demolish the unique brutalist building, composed of a nine-story concrete cloverleaf tower cantilevered over a rectangular five-story podium.
The stage is set for what some preservationists believe will be a defining moment in the battle to preserve modern architecture, and poses the question, Who determines the future of the past?
Hospitals are tough buildings to save, as the practice of medicine evolves and the architecture supporting it doesn't fit, and nobody donates millions to put their name on a 40 year old building, people want the shiny and new. However this is Chicago, a city of great architecture, and this is Bertrand Goldberg, who almost defined the mid-century modern style there. The Prentice could have been repaired, reused, repurposed; now it just gets recycled into sand and metal. That is such a waste.
See a bigger version of the film on Vimeo here.