Art Seen: Chicago

PRENTICE WINDOWS // JEFF PROKASH PART II

by Joshua Michael Demaree

Read Pt I here

Earlier this year, Chicago-based artist Jeff Prokash — beyond all expectations — was fortunate enough to become the owner of three iconic elliptical windows from famed architect Betrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hopsital in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood. The Brutalist tower, after a long and ill-fated fight from the city’s artistic and cultural communities to save the building, was demolished earlier this year. Prokash, who has turned the windows into a sculpture titled Prentice Windows, has found a way to give a second life to the windows, the ideologies of Prentice’s design, and Goldberg’s legacy.

It is not surprising upon seeing Prokash’s other work to draw a connection to his interest in both Prentice’s preservation and its demolition. This is not to say Prokash wanted Prentice demolished, but rather that he was able to see the inevitable as an opportunity. Prokash is a student of the built environment; his work investigates how cultural tastes and values are instilled into and dictated by our constructed environment. One of his pieces, a wall of concrete blocks weaved together through untreated lumber, lays slumped against the gallery wall. This kind of material study — which cleverly allows a construction (a wall) to do the opposite of its purpose (fall down) — is indicative of Prokash’s deep understand of our eternal reliance both physically and emotionally on the raw materials all around us. It asks us the Heideggerian question: what do we do when the tool breaks?

Wall (2013) by Jeff Prokash; wood and concrete bricks; photo courtesy of the artist

Wall (2013) by Jeff Prokash; wood and concrete bricks; photo courtesy of the artist

“My interest in the built environment really came around from a short time I was working as a construction worker,” Prokash remembers. “It came as an epiphany while I was working on someone’s house. I realized I was part of bringing raw materials together to then produce this vessel that some family would live in and would develop their entire lives and ideologies from that space.” Just as architects inculcate principles and purposes into every aspect of their designs during the planning and building process, it stands to reason that these intricate systems are then revealed as the buildings are deconstructed; akin to dissection on a grand scale.

Richard Nickel — the famed Chicago preservationist that died in 1972 while saving ornamentation from Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange — knew that buildings reveal more about their design and their construction as they are destroyed than they do standing tall. Nickel meticulously photographed buildings throughout their demolition, as its outer façade was stripped bare revealing nothing more than framework and floor plans, he sought to capture the building’s skeleton — the system of beliefs and desires that were instilled into its design — for the last time. Due to its signature cantilevered tower and proximity to its surround buildings, Prentice was dismantled painstakingly piece by piece. (This alone might be how the windows survived unscathed.) During this process, Goldberg’s intentions behind Prentice’s design were on full display.

One look at the tower’s floor plan reveals a classic panopticon. French philosopher Michel Foucault posited a circular prison with a lone guard tower in the center. He theorized that, as long as every prisoner could see the tower but not the person inside, the powerful processes of sight and thus accountability would make the prisoners believe they were always being watched and thus, keep them under imaginary control. Prentice took this process of domination and reversed it: rather than prisoners, there were patients, and rather than imaginary guards, there were real nurses. It turned a line of domination into a line of support, allowing the patients to know that someone was always in sight and able to help.

Floor plan of the tower of Prentice Women’s Hospital; courtesy of the Bertrand Goldberg Archive

Floor plan of the tower of Prentice Women’s Hospital; courtesy of the Bertrand Goldberg Archive

This kind of utilitarian design was key to the tenets of New Brutalism, a system of design that began in Great Britain in the 1950’s, favoring unfinished poured concrete as its key aesthetic. Like all movements, it had several founders at various starting points, but most famously were Alison and Peter Smithson, who laid out their most basic objectives in a short piece from the spring of 1957, writing that Brutalism “tries to face up to a mass-production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work.” They also point out Brutalism’s most contentious argument that has been present since its very beginnings: “Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.

Largely devoid of any decorative flourishes, floor plans were duteously designed to support any number of imaginable uses. The buildings, which came to appear as large concrete fortresses, were intended to be an architecture for the strong-willed people of postwar Britain as opposed to light and airiness of the International Style. The Smithsons write, “In the immediate postwar period it seemed important to show that architecture was still possible.” Brutalism is inherently what critic Terry Smith would call “an architecture of aftermath;” born from the rubble of two world wars, its bréton brut (“raw concrete”) was chosen for its cheapness, its proletariat lack of decoration, and its ability to protect whatever was inside. This kind of low-cost, multi-use philosophy appealed to American public universities throughout the ‘60’s and ‘70’s — where many Brutalist buildings now face the wrecking ball.

Demolition of Prentice Women’s Hospital in Streeterville, Chicago, IL; photo courtesy of Jeff Prokash

Demolition of Prentice Women’s Hospital in Streeterville, Chicago, IL; photo courtesy of Jeff Prokash

It was this very aesthetic that betrayed Prentice and other Brutalist buildings like it. Despite its populous goals, the buildings slowly became connotative of overburdening fascist ideals — one viewing of Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) reveals this cultural turn in opinion. The twentieth century would close with Brutalist buildings around the world — Prentice included — facing the possibility of demolition. Ironically this architecture of aftermath, created from the ruins of war, now seems destined to revert back into rubble. What do you do when the tool breaks? Nothing. Unless you are able to find an alternative use for the materials, a similar need we now face in the fight to save Brutalism. Truth: these buildings will be destroyed unless they can find new lives in a different form.

In a book released in April of this year, Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture, authors Stephen Cairns and Jane M. Jacobs ask the question, “How is the inevitability of death figured and managed in the rich narrative of life that attaches to architecture?” Exploring numerous facets of this intricate and important question throughout, the authors importantly pointing out that demolition, an unavoidable part of most buildings’ lives, “annihilates architectural fantasies of permanence” and that it “pulls down architectural creativity made manifest in built form” by erasing the “material referent of a building’s circulating meaning.” For Northwestern University’s research needs, Prentice was never an easy fit and so it had to be demolished but thanks to Prokash, it did not have to die.


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Joshua Michael Demaree lives in Philadelphia where he works at an independent bookstore. He is both a licensed driver and a dedicated taxpayer.

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