Anyone who has seen Prentice Women’s Hospital is immediately struck by its unusual appearance. And if you’ve walked around Streeterville in Chicago, you quickly realize that Prentice looks like nothing else in the neighborhood. In fact, it doesn’t look like anything else in Chicago, except other buildings designed by Bertrand Goldberg . The four curved concrete lobes that make up the seven-story tower are both harsh and sensuous at the same time. It is this contrast of hard surface, rounded curves, and a strictly rectilinear base of dark glass and steel that makes the building so unique, and so uniquely Goldberg.
Northwestern commissioned Goldberg in 1968 to design Prentice Women’s Hospital, intended to be a new maternity hospital providing Chicago with the most advanced obstetric care. By this time he was well known for his design and planning of large university medical centers at Harvard, Stanford, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Although other architects avoided health care projects because they felt the programmatic requirements limited their freedom and creativity, Goldberg embraced the challenge. In Prentice, as at his other hospitals, the program and the usage of the internal space actually inspired his planning process and shaped the external form.
From 1968-1970 Goldberg considered a number of options for the plan of Prentice, exploring hexagonal rooms, clusters of towers, a series of concrete tubes, and a ring of “pods.” But it was the discovery of a radical new engineering solution in 1971 that led to the selection of the unique quartrefoil tower plan. Using computer-aided design and modified software from the aviation industry, Goldberg’s team developed a system of curved concrete shells with intersecting arches, which allowed the tower to be cantilevered forty-eight feet off the core. This solution also eliminated internal supports, opening up the floor plans for greater flexibility of use and freedom of movement inside.
Each floor was laid out with a central nursing station situated between four circular patient wings. Because all the floor plates were column-free, hospital staff at the nursing stations could maintain close visual access to all the patient rooms. The Prentice plan was intended to provide a much higher standard of care by creating small floor plates that facilitated regular interaction between staff and patients. It was a radically different form and approach than earlier hospitals, where patients were isolated in small rooms along long corridors. In the words of Goldberg’s firm, BGA: “The breakthrough design for the seven story bed-tower is new in every respect. New in nursing care: patients are gathered in four small groups on each floor, each group with a nursing center, to provide better attention for the patient and fewer steps for the nurse and doctor.”
The flexible design was also an effective means to combine a number of functions within a single structure. The building allowed Northwestern Memorial Hospital to consolidate their obstetrics and gynecology departments (Prentice Women’s Hospital), and psychiatry departments (Stone Institute of Psychiatry) under one roof. It is this same flexibility that would now make Prentice an ideal candidate for many new uses, ranging from hotel to office space to laboratories.
Prentice Hospital provided maternity care for several generations of Chicago residents, but it was operating at well over its planned capacity. A new, larger Prentice Women’s Hospital was opened by Northwestern Memorial in 2007, less than a block away from the original. While the concrete tower of “old” Prentice has been vacant for several years, the Stone Institute continued to operate in the base until 2010. When the Stone Institute left the building, ownership of Prentice reverted back to Northwestern University, who claims it no longer meets their needs. Goldberg’s influential Modern masterpiece is now completely empty and its fate is uncertain.