The Women’s Hospital and Maternity Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital (eventually named for Abbie and Rockefeller Prentice) was conceived of as a major step forward in the care and treatment of women and babies in the city of Chicago. It consolidated the resources, knowledge, and services of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the Chicago Maternity Center, and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University Medical School and created a new kind of medical center that combined cutting edge technology, groundbreaking medical research, and patient-focused care. As advertised in a promotional pamphlet distributed by NMH at the time of the building’s completion, many of the services offered at the new hospital were not available anywhere else in the city. While Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the Northwestern University Medical School were well-established institutions in the field of traditional medicine, the Chicago Maternity Center was a smaller and more radical institution – although one with a history stretching back to the nineteenth century. Originally a proponent of home birth, by the 1970s the Maternity Center had shifted its approach to providing neighborhood-level resources to underprivileged women. By combining forces with Northwestern, they could bring their patient-focused approach to women’s health and childbirth to a much wider portion of Chicago’s population.
The instructions provided to Bertrand Goldberg Associates (BGA) by NMH required that the building have a maximum annual capacity of 6,000 deliveries, 3,000 gynecological operations, and 33,000 outpatient visits. It would also need to house research facilities and administrative offices. To this end, NMH requested 60 gynecological beds in private rooms, 21 obstetrical beds in private rooms, and 78 obstetrical beds in double rooms clustered in suites. They asked that facilities be included for a variety of functions: dietary, pathology, data processing, central sterile supplies, blood bank, laboratory, medical art, heating and cooling, central storage and receiving, radiology, laundry, pharmacy, emergency, medical records, parking, teaching, and animal quarters. To help the architects make sense of the complexity and specificity of the building’s program, NMH provided schematics to show the necessary flow of people and resources in seven different types of spaces: administrative and public, ambulatory care, delivery and operating room suites, dietary, service and maintenance, and research. (Program of Requirements and Instructions to Architect accessed at the Bertrand Goldberg Archive at the Ryerson Library of the Art Institute of Chicago)
One of the most exciting features of the new hospital, according to Prentice’s promotional pamphlet, would be the introduction of what they called Family-Centered Maternity Care. Inspired by the idea that the entire family should participate in childbirth and child rearing, as opposed to mothers working alone with doctors and nurses, this new kind of care meant that at Prentice fathers were for the first time allowed to be present during labor and delivery. Fathers also had extended visiting hours before and after the birth, and families had free access to their newborns. These modern practices were in sharp contrast to the then-standard procedures in which fathers were segregated in waiting rooms during the births, and babies were held in glass-walled nurseries until it was time for them to be taken home. The hospital’s promotional pamphlet boasted that “having a baby at Prentice is – as far as possible – a family event,” undertaken in an environment approximating the home. Standard post-delivery hospital stays were also to be drastically reduced, from five days to two or three in order to improve the hospital’s efficiency and to minimize disruption into family life. This revolutionary attitude towards childbearing required an equally revolutionary building, one that would emphasize community, comfort, and caring.
At some point after the original commission, but before Goldberg arrived at the final design for the building, NMH requested that facilities be added to accommodate the Northwestern Institute of Psychiatry. In a 1971 cross-section of the building psychiatric uses are indicated for three of the seven floors of the bedtower, although eventually the Institute of Psychiatry was confined to the base portion of the building. (see Cross-section, 1971) The large flexible spaces there accommodated a wide variety of uses relating to the Institute, including offices, group therapy rooms and alcohol abuse clinics. (see Isometric floor plans, c. 1971)
The wide variety of activities to be undertaken at Prentice, the fact that each of them had highly specific mechanical and spatial requirements, and the lack of precedent for many of them in hospital design meant that the architect for the project would need to creatively design a single building that could simultaneously serve a number of different demanding purposes. Bertrand Goldberg’s outspoken belief that human interactions should shape the buildings that contain them, and his experience with complex high-density urban developments, made him well-suited for the difficult task of designing an innovative new health center.
By the late 1960s, Goldberg was already a well-known architect in Chicago, having completed the iconic Marina City development on the north bank of the Chicago River. He had also shown proficiency with medical architecture at the Elgin State Hospital, northwest of the city. According to a June 2011 interview with Golbderg’s son, Geoffrey Goldberg, he had known Dr. Beatrice Tucker, the Chicago Maternity Center’s senior obstetrician, since at least 1960, when she asked him to design a prototype for a neighborhood birthing center that could be replicated in impoverished areas around the city. He provided those designs in 1962, although apparently nothing was ever built as a result. Dr. Tucker was not invited to participate in the planning of Prentice, but her forward-thinking ideas about women’s health, family life, and childbirth made a deep impression on Goldberg and guided many of his ideas for the project, including the basic premise that patients should be grouped in communities around a nursing center. His involvement with Dr. Tucker and his experience at Elgin likely played a role in NMH’s selection of BGA to design this new women’s health center in downtown Chicago.
On July 11, 1973, Goldberg delivered a talk about his concept for the women’s hospital at a luncheon attended by major donors to NMH and members of Prentice’s staff. (Lecture notes accessed at the Goldberg Archive at the Ryerson Library) Goldberg described the new facility as a “point of entry to all medical care for women,” offering gynecology, birth, fertility treatments, abortions, and all of the medical research needed to develop these procedures. The new hospital was intended to revolutionize medicine for women by providing a less “isolated” environment than the doctor’s office, delivering ambulatory care without hospital stays, and offering surroundings that would improve patient relationships with caregivers. He outlined the architecture that would serve this program: four “villages” per floor, adjacent to nursing centers, each accommodating 12 to 14 beds each. Each of the floors would have a centralized support area. The base of the building would contain flexible space for other purposes besides patient bedrooms. The hospital would also include research facilities that would be coordinated with nursing areas. At the end of his speech, Goldberg’s notes indicate that he addressed the concrete shell construction of the building, which he described with one word: “landmark.”
By the time of this talk in the summer of 1973, construction for the building was just getting underway, but BGA had already spent almost four years working on the project, not to mention Goldberg’s decade-long involvement with Dr. Tucker. Goldberg was also simultaneously working on three other hospital projects: Affiliated Hospitals in Boston, Massachusetts; the Health Sciences Center in Stony Brook, New York; and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma, Washington. All of these projects, as well as the handful of medical facilities he designed later in the 1970s, use a similar combination of curvaceous towers above rectilinear base structures. But at the beginning of the 1970s Goldberg was so far unsatisfied with his explorations into this concept. He believed that hospitals should have open and flexible space in order to accommodate a variety of different uses and the changes that would inevitably come in medical technology. The large floor plates of the round towers required columns or walls to support them, which penetrated the rectangular base structures below, interfering with their open plans. At Prentice he came up with a structural solution that finally satisfied his goals for medical architecture, and he felt it was the culmination of his investigation of hospitals. (Blum 223)
In his planning for Prentice, Goldberg went through three different designs before arriving at the final design around 1971. Because he was simultaneously working on a number of other hospital projects, elements of these other buildings can be seen in these early designs. The first, from 1969, shows a drum-shaped, curtain-walled tower, raised on pilotis that descend through the middle of a one-story pavilion. (Early rendering showing preliminary design, 1969) The smooth cylindrical shape of the tower mimics that of his Elgin State Hospital in Illinois, from 1967. A second plan for Prentice eliminated the large rectangular base altogether, consolidating the building into a ring of concrete tubes standing on arched supports, connected by glass-enclosed hallways on the upper floors. (Early rendering showing preliminary design, c. 1969) A third design, the most similar to Prentice’s final appearance and dating to around 1970, shows a rectilinear glass-curtain-walled base of about four stories with a plaza on its roof. Sprouting from the middle of this plaza is a mechanical core surrounded by three or four concrete bedtowers. Each tower has a rippling shell punctured by paired columns of oval windows, and is supported by a thin stem of concrete. A rendering of this design ran in the article in the Chicago Daily News on April 23, 1970 that publicly announced the new hospital to Chicago, and BGA went so far as to construct a three-dimensional model of it. (Early model, c. 1970) A version of this design also found its application at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma, Washington, completed in 1975. While the smaller towers in this early design for Prentice use similar cantilevers as the ones seen in Prentice’s final form, they are not as dramatic. The four stems and the mechanical core were all separate, and not yet consolidated into the single central support of the finished building.
None of these early designs quite compare to the levels of flexibility and inventiveness that distinguish Prentice’s final form. The tower supports in all three cases significantly interfere with the flexibility of the base structure, or, as in the case of the second design, the base is altogether eliminated. Considering the diversity and changeability of the program requirements at Prentice, these designs would not have been as well suited to its intended uses.
At the topping off celebration held at Prentice’s construction site on May 23, 1974, Goldberg said that this hospital was “designed from the inside out.” (Lecture notes accessed at the Goldberg Archive at the Ryerson Library) The building was intended to be a shell, protecting and surrounding the hospital activities within, but never interfering. Given NMH’s need for traditional, rectilinear, flexible space for administrative, office, operating, and labor rooms, Goldberg knew he had to provide a spacious rectangular base that could have its interior spaces infinitely reconfigured. The bedtower above would need to be physically connected by stairs and elevators in order to allow circulation between them. In order to avoid interrupting the base structure’s flexibility, the tower’s structural supports had to be consolidated with this connection as well. The entire tower had to somehow cantilever off of a single supporting core. Prentice was certainly not the first time Goldberg had considered monumental cantilevers as a design solution; even at Marina City he felt that the supporting columns of the towers interfered with the commercial spaces on the ground. A cantilever was considered there, but was determined to be too dangerous. (Goldberg interview, June 21, 2011)
It was only with the help of brand-new computer technology that Goldberg was able to achieve a satisfactory structure at Prentice. The floor plates of the bed tower had to be so large, and the cantilever from the core so extensive, that the task of figuring out how to engineer the concrete shell and supporting intersecting arches became staggeringly complex. In the 1950s, designers (primarily in military and aeronautical fields) began using a method known as finite element analysis to engineer the increasingly complicated machines being developed in the mid-century industrial boom. This new approach allowed engineers to isolate individual structural elements and evaluate their behavior – a necessary tactic for Prentice’s complicated and untested new shape. Although Goldberg did not invent finite element analysis, it had probably never before been used on a structure as large or complex as Prentice. This was in part due to the fact that the high-speed digital technology necessary to analyze that many structural elements was not available. By the time Goldberg began work on Prentice, digital computers were still in their infancy, but BGA were the American architects at the vanguard of this technology. Goldberg and his chief structural engineer, Ludwig Stainer, worked with a sister company called Computer Service Incorporated and two engineers there, Mike Eiben and Mickey Gerardi, to retrofit finite element analysis software made by the Control Data company in Minneapolis. Although the program was normally used to design airplane wings, BGA and Computer Service Inc. managed to transform it into one of the world’s first three-dimensional modeling programs with an architectural application. (3-D diagram of bedtower stress analysis, c. 1971) This was an important achievement at a time when primitive technology made any kind of computer drawing, even in two dimensions, difficult. (Historical information about the design and engineering of Prentice is from an interview conducted with Goldberg’s son, Geoffrey Goldberg, on June 21, 2011.)
With this essentially homemade software, Goldberg and Stainer were able to undertake previously unheard of amounts of engineering calculations in a matter of weeks. The result was a structural system at Prentice that had never been used anywhere else in the world. Both the lightweight concrete shell and the cantilever of the tower remain highly complex by present day engineering standards. Fixed element analysis and digital computing have since made possible an architectural revolution of convoluted shapes and sculpted structures by architects like Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry. The structure of Prentice also remains rare, and possibly unique. Few buildings in the world are supported by concrete shell walls as thin as Prentice’s. The combination of this shell with the unusual 48-foot cantilever makes Prentice’s structure a very unusual one.
The curving cloverleaf-shaped exterior wall of the tower both circumscribed the clustered organization of the “care villages” within, and also formed a structural shell that transferred forces down to the sideways arches at the foot of the tower and from there to the elevator enclosure at its core. This meant a high level of flexibility in the floor plans of both the tower and the base below. This, in the end, was the ultimate goal of all of Goldberg’s technological work. In this way, Prentice is an excellent illustration of one of the key aspects of architectural Modernism: the use of new technology in service of more humane environments.
Although the tower is the most striking feature of Prentice both aesthetically and structurally, Goldberg emphasized that the facility was not one, but two buildings: a tower as well as a base. (Goldberg topping off speech, May 23, 1974) The radical division between the two parts - enabled by the consolidation of the tower’s support structure at its core - allowed Goldberg to address NMH’s complex programmatic needs and his own desire for peaceful, secluded bedrooms for patients. All of the administrative, delivery, and various other support activities could be segregated in the base structure while the bedtower was devoted to rest and recuperation with family and nurses nearby.
While the complicated engineering calculations necessary to construct Prentice’s revolutionary concrete tower were expedited by new computer technology, the design process was slowed by programmatic changes requested by NMH. Between the original instructions given to BGA in 1969 and the beginning of construction in 1972, the project went from being a hospital devoted entirely to the care, treatment, and study of women and babies to all of that plus a home for the Northwestern Institute of Psychiatry. However, since this and other major changes (including the addition of an eleventh-floor laboratory) were made prior to 1971 they were included in Goldberg’s renderings from that year, which show for the first time the building in its built form. (Cross-section, 1971)
Prentice Women’s Hospital consists of a rectangular five-story base of reinforced concrete post and beam construction below a seven-story bed tower of reinforced poured concrete in a distinctive quatrefoil shape. Its total size is 310,000 square feet.
The typical bay span in the base portion of the hospital is 34 feet by 34 feet. It is clad in an opaque metal curtain wall with solar bronze insulating glass windows. Fenestration is intermittent and incorporated into the curtain wall. Visitors enter the building via a glass-enclosed plaza at ground level. The main entrance is on the south facade, with a secondary entrance on the north and loading zones and service entrances on the east and west facades. Elevators and stairs lead through the core of the building to the clinic levels of the rectangular base, and beyond to the bed tower above.
The base was built to house functions of both the Prentice Women’s Hospital and the Northwestern Institute of Psychiatry, eventually named the Norman & Ida Stone Institute of Psychiatry. Its open floor plan accommodates a number of different needs including group therapy areas, triage, alcoholism and drug abuse clinics, day care facilities, and technical and administrative office space for the Institute of Psychiatry, as well as offices and labor, delivery, and recovery rooms for Prentice.
The clover-shaped poured concrete bed tower also housed recovery and examination rooms for Prentice and the Institute of Psychiatry. It is supported by a unique structural system developed and used for the first time by BGA in this building. Four arch-shaped wall sections are cantilevered off of the central core, which also houses the stairwell and elevator shafts. The cast-in-place concrete walls are fifteen inches thick for the lower three stories and ten inches thick for the upper four stories. The dramatic cantilever of the tower floors allowed the elimination of support columns on the tower’s perimeter, creating more open and flexible floor plans throughout the tower and base. The resulting quatrefoil shape also facilitates a more humane organization of functions on the maternity floors. Each of the four sections holds twelve beds at the outer edges of the floor, totaling 264 beds for the whole tower, with two elliptical pivoting solar bronze insulating glass “visional panels” for each room. Bathrooms are also at the outer edge of the tower, located between every two bedrooms. All of the bedrooms are equidistant from the building’s core, which housed the nursing stations and nurseries as well as the stairs and elevators. This created improved visual and physical connections between the patients and the nurses, as well as between mothers and babies in the nursery. It also reduced foot traffic in circulation areas, resulting in a quieter, more peaceful atmosphere.
Between 1968 and 1969 BGA and NMH finalized the terms of their agreement, and design work began. They drafted a project timeline on April 28, 1969 indicating that work should begin on May 15, 1969 and last a projected 42.5 months. Months 15.5 through 39.5 were to be devoted to construction. (Timeline accessed at Goldberg Archive at the Ryerson Library)
Due to delays in the design process, BGA did not request bids from contractors until April 1972. The delays and changes continued even after construction began - probably not unusual given the number of people and needs involved in any large hospital building. By July 1974, according to meeting notes found in the Goldberg Archive at the Ryerson Library, Prentice’s board was dissatisfied with the number and cost of change orders, so Goldberg explained that the vast majority was a result of program modifications on the part of the hospital. Given the mechanical complexity of most of the building’s spaces, every change required re-working agreements with various contractors and city building inspectors, and hence multiplied costs and schedules. Furthermore, the constant changes meant that the building program “never [came] to rest for a fixed architectural design.” Although the 1971 renderings show the exterior of the building as it would be built and many of the interiors essentially as they would be finished, any number of changes had to be made to the details of the building in order to accommodate NMH staff needs.
Despite the pre-construction delays, in 1972 Goldberg was able to field exceptionally low bids that complied with estimates made as far back as 1968. According to his July 1974 notes, most of these savings were thanks to the concrete shell construction of the tower, which cost only $57 per square foot, as opposed to $75 to $85 per square foot for other hospital buildings of curtain-wall construction. Using reinforced concrete for floors, walls, and structure meant that it provided built-in fireproofing, noise dampening, earthquake reinforcement, and insulation for the entire tower.
Goldberg’s unique design for the bedtower required matching ingenuity from the project’s contractors in order to pour the complicated concrete forms. There was no margin for error in creating the sweeping X-shaped intersections of the arches at the bottom of the tower. Nothing like them had ever been undertaken before, they were the key to the building’s entire structure, and they could not be fixed if formed incorrectly. (Goldberg interview, June 21, 2011) Furthermore, the arches were one of the key aesthetic features of the building since they were placed prominently over the hospital’s entrance. Although Prentice was in general a highly cost-effective building, the custom forms necessary to achieve the tower’s unique structure added some expense to the early stages of construction. Goldberg tried to mitigate this by re-using them in as many applications as possible.
According to NMH’s newsletter, Dialog, the first patient was moved into Prentice Hospital on December 10, 1975. A special January 1976 Dialog supplement produced for the occasion of Prentice’s dedication describes the festivities as a ceremony on January 22, 1976, accompanied by a weeklong celebration attended by notable figures from a variety of fields. The Illinois State Lieutenant Governor Neil Hartigan and City of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley both attended the dedication, and the local CBS, NBC, and ABC news affiliates featured the hospital and its new services on multiple programs. The hospital also scheduled three days of medical symposia for professionals from around the world to gather in Chicago and discuss the current state of gynecological and obstetrical science.
When it was completed in 1975, Prentice Women’s Hospital concrete shell bedtower was internationally recognized as a breakthrough in architectural engineering. It was celebrated in architecture and building technology publications around the world, including Building Design & Construction (March 1974 cover story), Inland Architect (January 1974 and April 1976), Architecture and Urbanism (Japan, July 1975), Architecture d’aujourd’hui (France, January – February 1976), Architectural Record (July 1976), Informes de la Construction (Spain, November 1976), Cement (Netherlands, 1977), Concrete Construction (February 1980), L’Industria Italiana Del Cemento (Italy, No. 7-8, 1980), and Concrete Abstracts (cover image, January/February 1986) (see documentation section below for more details). In 1975 the Engineering News-Record granted it an award for “distinguished architectural and engineering development for innovations in structure.” Four years after its completion, in 1979, Prentice was recognized for its ingenious use of materials and structural engineering in a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York entitled “Transformations in Modern Architecture,” organized by the museum’s highly influential curator of architecture and design, Arthur Drexler. In its 1976 feature article on Prentice, Architectural Record praised the flexibility and efficiency of the innovative shell construction, punning that Goldberg “hit the snail on the head.”
All of this praise was warranted by the cantilevered shell structural system, a first in the history of concrete construction, that Goldberg invented for use at Prentice. Indeed, not only is Prentice noteworthy because it was the first example of its kind, it remains rare even now. With no architectural precedent and relatively primitive tools, Goldberg and his engineers managed to arrive at a complex, efficient, and graceful structural solution that would be an accomplishment even for a contemporary engineer using 21st century technology. Goldberg described Prentice as the achievement of both humans and computers, highlighting another groundbreaking aspect of its design: that it was one of the first and largest buildings designed using finite element analysis. This accomplishment was made possible by brand new high-speed digital computers and three-dimensional modeling programs that BGA adapted themselves from aeronautical applications. Engineering Prentice’s new structural form required equally revolutionary design technology, and Goldberg was years ahead of the rest of the architecture world in this respect. He was in fact one of the first architects to realize the potential of the digital computers that are now an essential tool for all designers and engineers. Prentice’s extraordinary form is a testament to Goldberg’s aesthetic and technological creativity, and a crucial early example of the digital revolution that would eventually re-shape the built environment. It therefore has importance in both the past and present of architectural engineering: it represents a watershed moment in the dawn of computer-assisted design, and remains a rare and complex form worthy of study today.
Although Prentice’s structure was shockingly new to the 1970s eyes of the architecture and engineering communities, it was a natural development in an architectural career always characterized by ingenuity and creativity. Before Prentice, Goldberg was best known in Chicago for his Marina City towers, one of the city’s best-loved architectural features, and for Raymond Hilliard Homes, an innovative high-rise housing project on the South Side of Chicago that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. At Marina City, Goldberg maximized livable space on a small and misshapen downtown lot by creating two round towers supported by central cores, with apartments extending off of them like petals on a flower, with supplemental supports at their outer edges. The flexibility and efficiency of the core model was clearly appealing in the Prentice project, but the floor space necessary for a hospital as compared to a low-cost apartment tower was such that extra support would be needed to supplement it. The round towers and curving slab high-rises at Hilliard Homes, built while Marina City was still under construction, are supported by their exterior walls, which form a rippling concrete load-bearing shell. Prentice is a revolutionary combination of these two trademark structural innovations: its undulating shell walls gracefully pass loads down to its central concrete core by way of dramatic 48-foot sideways arches, and all three features (core, shell, and arch) work together to support the massive bedtower. In the context of Goldberg’s life-long history of structural achievement, Prentice is a high point. It contributed a completely new building form to the growing world of concrete construction, and further established Goldberg as one of America’s most inventive architects and engineers.
Goldberg was always quick to point out that the technical achievements at Prentice Hospital, and indeed in all of his buildings, were not just meant to show off his prowess as an engineer. He took advantage of the most advanced tools available because he wanted to make buildings that would best serve their ultimate users - in this case the patients and medical staff of Prentice. Goldberg’s drive to provide a more flexible and efficient structure at Prentice was in service of his equally radical desire to change the landscape of modern health care. All of this tied into Goldberg’s life-long quest to develop architecture that made urban life more comfortable and satisfying. The assignment at Prentice Hospital, to design a building for a totally new, more humane approach to women’s health care, was a good match for Goldberg’s ongoing investigation into the ways in which architecture could improve human lives. The result of Goldberg’s commission on this project is a building that is an important milestone in the development of twentieth century medicine. In addition to all of the press the building received in the architectural media, the medical community also recognized its design as an important step forward in hospital design. It was featured on the cover of Modern Healthcare Magazine in March of 1976, and in the entry on the history of hospital design in the 1977 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, a photograph of Prentice was chosen to illustrate the section on modern hospitals.
With their revolutionary ideas about the future of women’s health care, Goldberg and the Prentice Hospital administrators were a product of their time. Just as many aspects of American life were undergoing seismic changes in the 1970s, so too was American medicine, especially in the fields of obstetrics and gynecology. Changing attitudes towards women’s roles in society, family planning, and doctor-patient relationships were all played out in Prentice’s groundbreaking program, and Goldberg’s building was an important part of bringing these new services to the women and children of Chicago. In their promotional materials, the “configuration of the new building” was listed as one of the features that would improve Prentice’s service to patients. For example, the hospital’s introduction of the Family-Centered Maternity Care approach, in which mothers and fathers were able to experience labor and delivery together and afterwards interact freely with their new infants, found architectural expression in Goldberg’s centrally-located nurseries and accommodating recuperation rooms. While the Prentice administrators had the idea to provide a more communal environment in their maternity ward, Goldberg invented the “campfire” form that made it possible. NMH touted Prentice as “a unique building for unique medical care.” (Dialog, January 1976) Goldberg’s building was functionally necessary in order to host Prentice’s operations, and its dramatic structure was an advertisement for the equally exceptional medical care offered within.
Goldberg is well known for his use of round shapes in all kinds of architecture, but he believed the circle had particular usefulness in health care design. He saw traditional rectilinear hospital spaces, which he referred to as “linear yard goods,” as wasteful and inhumane. (Architectural Record 115) Long straight hallways added to travel time for caregivers between their patients and nursing stations, resulting in feelings of isolation and dangerous delays in care. Visitors, doctors, and nurses forced to walk up and down halls were a constant disturbance to patients attempting to rest in the rooms lining their path. Goldberg felt that most hospitals’ architecture worked against the very purpose for which they were built: the care and healing of people in need. He was quoted in Architectural Record in June 1976:
"What we are trying to restore is the give-and-take, the come-and-go between the very ill person and the very concerned care group, and we do this on the premise that people, who can not afford to be casually ill, have a right to a mode and a mood of treatment that goes beyond the old story…of running long distances to deliver a glass of water."
The cluster layout on display at Prentice was Goldberg’s response to all of these problems. By using circular rather than linear floor plans, he reduced inconvenience, fostered quality relationships between patients and caregivers, and cut down on distracting activity in circulation areas. At Prentice, the core of each bed tower floor held nursing stations and nurseries, which allowed all patients to be as close as possible to their main sources of comfort and concern while in the hospital: nurses and their newborn babies. Nurses also benefited from the ability to maintain visual contact with many of their charges, and easily reach them when necessary. The “quiet village” nursing clusters provided a significantly calmer and more restful environment for the hospital’s female patients and their new children. (Architectural Record 109)
Just as Prentice’s new structural system can be attributed to the in-house ingenuity of BGA, Goldberg’s unique approach to health care design was also his own. The result of a mixture of his experiences as a student of Mies van der Rohe at the Bauhaus, his tutelage under Dr. Tucker at the Chicago Maternity Center, and the accumulated wisdom of his years as an architect, the cluster and core layout at Prentice was Goldberg’s visionary response to the needs of the modern healthcare system. Based on his fundamental belief that architects can provide more efficient and nurturing environments for all people, itself a guiding principle of the Modernist movement as a whole, Prentice is an important illustration of Goldberg’s contributions to twentieth century improvements in health care design.
Prentice Women’s Hospital is as aesthetically advanced as it is technically and functionally innovative. As the Chicago architect Jeanne Gang says, “It’s engaging. It challenges your assumptions. When I come down the street, I always look for it, like a friend.” The creativity and complexity of its two-part shape make it a stunning example of the sculptural tendencies that characterized late Modernist architecture. Arthur Drexler chose it for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Transformations in Modern Architecture” show because it was an exceptional example of a new kind of “morphologically mixed” architecture. BGA was on the cutting edge of concrete structural systems and computer-assisted design technology, both examples of the new materials and tools that swept through Modernist architecture in the 1970s and caused a revolution in building geometry. No longer was architectural creativity limited to applied ornament on four straight walls and a roof. Designers were increasingly free to sculpt entirely new building forms, and geometric diversity expanded as a result. Prentice is unique in many ways, but it is also emblematic of larger aesthetic developments in late twentieth century architectural Modernism. Prentice also fits into Modernism’s much longer history as an aesthetic based on structural expression – a history that is especially important in the hospital’s immediate surroundings of Chicago. Goldberg’s city was also home to William Le Baron Jenney, Louis Sullivan, and Mies van der Rohe, all architects who advertised their structural ingenuity with corresponding aesthetic creativity. The magnificent X-shaped intersections of the concrete arches on Prentice can be seen as the late twentieth century version of Jenney’s and Sullivan’s stripped-down steel frame high rises. At Prentice, Goldberg continued to carry the torch of structural innovation that has made Chicago a center for architectural modernism since the late 1800s.
Prentice Women’s Hospital is an exceptional illustration of the cultural optimism, technological experimentation, and aesthetic creativity that characterize the Modern Movement. It is also significant because of its association with Bertrand Goldberg, a key figure in American Modernism. Goldberg’s studies at the Bauhaus and close personal relationship with Mies van der Rohe make his work an important connection to the crucible of European Modernism, even as his questioning mind led him to design buildings that bore little resemblance to the work by any of his teachers. On a local level, Goldberg is one of Chicago’s best-known native architects of the Modern Movement. His Marina City complex, with its flower-shaped towers bearing a clear resemblance to the bed tower at Prentice, is one of the most widely recognized architectural features of the city. It appears consistently in representations of the skyline, and is a symbol for Chicago’s architecture all over the world. At Prentice, Goldberg continued to deal with many of the social and structural ideas he began working on at Marina City, but applied them to his lifelong preoccupation with healthcare design.
Unfortunately, Prentice has not fared as well in public perception as Marina City. Prentice’s massive poured concrete construction, its most important contribution to the development of late twentieth century structural engineering, is reminiscent to the untrained eye of highway overpasses, grain elevators, and other banal infrastructural monuments. Its small dark windows, presciently designed to maximize energy efficiency in the years immediately preceding this country’s first energy crisis, now may seem depressing and inhumane. Although the building’s concrete structure has weathered the years admirably, months of vacancy in the tower and years of disinvestment in the entire building have not served it well. It is sometimes difficult for contemporary viewers to see it as anything but out-of-date and out-of-use, especially given NMH’s public insistence that it is dysfunctional, and a lack of popular education on its important place in the history of structural engineering and healthcare design. Prentice Women’s Hospital’s operations outgrew Goldberg’s building far too quickly; an additional floor was added to its base when it was only thirteen years old, and after only 32 years NMH has replaced it with a much larger women’s hospital just a few blocks away. They have argued that Goldberg’s hospital must come down in order to make room for contemporary research and medical needs. The lack of institutional, civic, and public memory for “Old” Prentice’s exceptional contributions to twentieth century architecture and healthcare means that the building has relatively few supporters within the hospital and the local government, resulting in a protracted debate between preservationists and Northwestern officials over the its ultimate fate.
In 2011, a coalition effort called Save Prentice was formed to advocate for the preservation of Goldberg’s building. With support and involvement from preservation organizations including Docomomo US, Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Preservation Chicago, Save Prentice made huge strides in educating the public about the building’s importance, developing relationships with City of Chicago and NMH decision-makers, and commissioning and distributing re-use studies that support Prentice’s preservation.
“10-story maternity hospital, Near North research center,” Chicago Daily News, April 22, 1970.
“Cantilevering the Shell: A Breakthrough,” Inland Architect, January 1974, 6 – 7.
Tatum, Rita. “The man who gave you Marina City is still throwing curves,” Building Design & Construction, March 1974.
“Towers’ cores implanted idea for cantilevered, high-rise shell,” Engineering News-Record, July 18, 1974.
“Special Feature: Bertrand Goldberg” and “An Architecture for Humanism,” Architecture and Urbanism, Japan, July, 1975.
“Hospital Prentice pour femmes et institute psychiatrique,” Architecture d’aujourd’hui, France, January – February 1976.
Ruggerio, Virginia. “Cluster and Core: A Hospital Done the Goldberg Way,” Inland Architect, April 1976, 18 – 20.
“Hospitals.” Architectural Record, July 1976, 109 – 124.
“Hospital Femenino e Instituto Psiquiátrico, Chicago – EE.UU.,” Informes de la Construction, November 1976.
“Caring & Curing,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1977.
Drexler, Arthur. Transformations in Modern Architecture. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1979.
“The Prentice Women’s Hospital at the Northwestern University, Chicago,” L’Industria Italiana Del Cemento, Nos. 7 – 8, 1980.
Ragon, Michel. Goldberg, Dans La Ville / In the City. Paris: Paris Art Center, 1985.
Concrete Abstracts, January / February 1986. Cover illustration.
Blum, Betty. Chicago Architects Oral History Project: Bertrand Goldberg. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1992.
Goldberg, Geoffrey. Telephone interview. June 21, 2011.
- Early rendering showing preliminary design, 1969 
- Early rendering showing preliminary design, c. 1969 
- Early model, c. 1970. Photograph by Hedrich-Blessing 
- Early gouache rendering showing preliminary design, c. 1970 
- Ink rendering showing final design, c. 1970 - 1971 
- Cross-section, 1971 
- Bedtower floor plan, 1971 
- Isometric floor plans, c. 1971 
- 3-D diagram of bedtower stress analysis, c. 1971 
- Rendering of floor addition and base renovation. Dialog (Northwestern Memorial Hospital Newsletter), January – February, 1988.