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Is Demolishing a Brutalist Icon a 'Penn Station Moment?'

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Chicago's Old Prentice Women's Hospital, a 1975 work by Bertrand Goldberg (the architect responsible for the much-beloved Marina City apartment complex that graces the cover of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), had its first few floors knocked out earlier this week, as the demolition contrived by Northwestern University and executed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel got off to a start. Another day, another remarkable building razed, and onward goes the march of history, right? Even the not-unsubstantial public outcry against the demolition seemed par for the course, aside from when Frank Gehry joined in. Eschewing this kind of jaded grousing in favor of a long-view approach to preservation in America, architectural historian Michael R. Allen, writing for Next City, wonders if Chicago didn't just experience a present-day "Penn Station Moment," the loss of a landmark that will rally people to the defense of endangered structures for years to come.

When the demolition of New York City's original Penn Station was announced in 1963, Americans had already had half a century to come to appreciate its steel colonnades and vaulted skylights. Due to the stagnated urban growth that marked the first half of the 20th century, by the time buildings like Penn Station came under threat, Allen argues, "the generational remove was long enough that these building's older styles were again revered." Which wasn't always enough to stop them from falling, but it did convince Americans "that their heritage was systematically at risk," resulting in the growth of a preservation movement that saved many of Penn Station's peers.

Modernist landmarks like Old Prentice, on the other hand, are having a generally shorter shelf life, and it's unclear if our nostalgic appreciation of Modernism will catch up with the current pace of urban development, driving us to deem more buildings of that era worth preserving. Its destruction could very well be a turning point, but the lifespan of the hospital was more than a decade shorter than that of Penn Station. Maybe if it had more time to come back into fashion, Northwestern would've given pause before razing the structure, and considered plans to expand it without compromising it entirely.

Is Brutalism, even when its showing its softer side, simply an acquired taste, like a subdued cold brew coffee or a coppery IPA? Was the entire Modernist enterprise founded on unstable ground? Is Old Prentice simply U-G-L-Y, bankrupt in the alibi department? If you think so, feel free to tear it apart in the comments, because the rest of us will probably be mourning its literal tearing apart with more jaded grousing.
Spencer Peterson

· Prentice Hospital Could Become Modern Architecture's 'Penn Station Moment' [Next City]
· All Previous Prentice Hospital Coverage [Curbed Chicago]