When art meets science, the results can be sublime. When the two collide, well, consider the case of Northwestern University's iconic Prentice Women's Hospital, a concrete, cloverleaf-shaped high-rise sited on Chicago's Gold Coast.

Prentice stands empty, as it has since 2007. Northwestern wants to tear it down and replace it with a medical research center, its contention being the 38-year-old structure has outlived its usefulness and can't be adapted to meet 21st Century research standards. Preservationists want to save it, contending that a new study indicates Prentice could be adapted for research or, failing that, office or apartment uses. (Click here to see related image and New York Times story on the issue.)

Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP)placed Prentice on its list of The 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, elaborating that its architect, the late Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg, who also designed Chicago's celebrated Marina City, believed “imaginative and bold hospital planning could lead to a higher standard of patient care. Prentice Women’s Hospital is [Goldberg's] tour de force. Believing that the modernist boxes typical of the 1970s were dehumanizing and insensitive to their surroundings, Goldberg designed an open-floor plan that created four circular villages of care on each floor, facilitating interaction between patients and staff while improving patient experience.”

It's a concept that countless hospitals emulated, and with good reason. Prentice is the perfect embodiment of form matching function. Now that it no longer functions, what we're left with is its form, as well as the question of whether form, once divorced from function, is necessarily worth saving.

In this instance, yes, according to the more than 60 architects, including Frank Gehry and Chicago's Jeanne Gang, who have petitioned Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to save Prentice. A mayoral spokeswoman indicated Emanuel wants to give all sides ample time to air their views, while Northwestern, for its part, has agreed to delay its plans until the Commission on Chicago Landmarks holds a hearing on the matter.

All very civil – to a point. Although Northwestern is awaiting input from the Landmarks Commission, commission chair Rafael Leon indicated last week that he refuses to proceed with a hearing while Northwestern, the City, preservationists and others negotiate the matter.


Leon announced his decision during a commission meeting attended by several members of the “Save Prentice” coalition. He also interrupted Christina Morris, head of NTHP's Chicago field office, when she raised the issue of Prentice during the public comment period.

According to Chicago Tribune Architecture Critic Blair Kamin, who attended the meeting, “Leon cut her off. He said the building...would be discussed if it appears on the commission's agenda.

“[Another] commission member asked when that would be.

“Leon said he didn't know.”

Which is to say that for this sublimely beautiful form, things could get ugly.