by Joshua Michael Demaree
In 2013, when architect Betrand Goldberg’s infamous Prentice Women’s Hospital began to be demolished, the artist and cultural communities of Chicago that had fought to save the Brutalist tower, looked on in dismay. Chicago-based artist, Jeff Prokash, had a different reaction: rather than see the building as lost, he imagined what could become of the materials that were being carted away by demolition crews. He set about determined to save some of Prentice’s iconic elliptical windows. After several months of run-around with Northwestern University and the demolition crew, beyond all hope, he was able to procure what are the last four remaining in-tact windows, insuring that one part of the building would be given a second life.
While moving the windows back to his studio at the Art Institute of Chicago, a gust of window knocked over one of the remaining windows. The window shattered, a suitable and unfortunate metaphor for history’s own fragility. Prokash then quickly set about constructing an armature to allow the windows to stand upright on their edge. The three remaining windows have since been displayed at an angle either perpendicular or oblique to their original orientation. When the works were first publically shown in Frozen Borderline, an exhibition hosted by Ballroom Projects at the Archer Ballroom, in an exhibition alongside artists Danny Floyd and Kyle Nilan, each window was equipped with a unique armature that tilted it about 15-degrees to the right.
While Prentice Windows has been shown with a different set of armature, but the formal arrangement of the three upturned windows side-by-side remains the same. At seven-by-five feet, they are an imposing force when viewed up close. They also have an ominous presence due to the tinted glass, originally intended to provide privacy to the patients at Prentice. The glass, removed from its context, now acts as a ghostly mirror that allows the viewer to both see through it while simultaneously viewing a reflection of themself. This play on lines of sight, reminiscent of the work of Dan Graham, evokes the design of Prentice’s floor plan that once used the windows to give, on the obstetrics floor for example, the child its first view of the outside world. Now, shadowed by indoor lighting, the windows conceal as much as they reveal.
No longer do the windows provide their original function of allowing the outside to come inside, but Prokash plays with this concept by positioning the windows near a wall for bracing and tilting the windows ever-so-slightly forward, creating an acute angle between the window and the wall. This creates a distinct “inside” of the piece—standing between the windows and the wall—and an “outside” that retains the architecturality of their original context. This distance also gives the window a clean, literary look. They appear in unison as a huge ellipsis, instantly bringing to mind the interstice they inhabit between what Prentice was and… what’s now left of it. A subsequent arrangement (seen below) retains the windows’ parallel placement to each other but steps each one slightly forward of the last, projecting the ellipsis forward to confront the viewer. Prokash has stated that the particular arrangements of Prentice Windows is likely to keep changing and that he “sees the windows not as site-specific but site-responsive. To move them isn’t to destroy them, but it allows the piece to activate the space.”
Of the few that have witnessed Prentice Windows, its importance is clear. Most who lived in Chicago between 2011 and 2013 are amazed to be so close to the objects thought to be lost. Materially, the mere continued existence of these three windows is of vital archival importance to the legacy of Prentice, Bertrand Goldberg, and mid-century Chicago architecture and a tribute to the foresight of Prokash. For those less familiar with the Prentice dispute, the windows are still very impressive and formally urge the viewer to “enter” into the piece. Prentice Windows is the kind of sculpture you want to play with, to move through and between. They feel like a public sculpture, something that seems familiar and lacks security protection so that play becomes a viable and expected form of engagement.
But Prokash is weary—rightfully so—of turning Prentice Windows into a public work of art. “It would be the equivalent of the arch from the Chicago Stock Exchange,” Prokash mentioned, citing the famed archway from the same building that Richard Nickel died trying to save. The terra cotta archway were saved from demolition and bequeathed to the Art Institute. The arch now sits on a public walkway on the back corner of the museum’s modern wing. “It is just lost in space behind the Art Institute. It’s an artifact. It doesn’t enlighten us as to where we are and where we’ve been.” Public sculpture, especially in the site- or historically-specific variety, walks a tricky line between preservation and memorial.
Prokash recently returned from a trip to Berlin where he was entranced by the city’s ability to weave historicity and contemporaneity seamlessly throughout the urban environment. A perfect example of this is the multi-styled Reichstag built in 1894 to house the German imperial government. Its dome was destroyed alongside most of the rest of the building during World War II and it would be nearly fifty years later until British architect Norman Foster designed a glass dome to complete the building’s restoration. This impressive dome, now a staple of German tourism, allows visitors a 360-degree view of the Berlin cityscape, collapsing the city’s ruinous past with the potential for visitors to see its future. In another part of the Reichstag, preservationists saved a wall that is covered in Soviet graffiti in a hallway frequently traverse by German government officials. The angry slurs are meant as a constant reminder of the government’s power to do as much harm as good.
In essence, these two public works are a memento mori, or a reminder of death. The Chicago Stock Exchange archway, likewise a reminder, visually retells the unfortunate destruction of long lost Sullivan & Adler buildings. Yet the archway is definitively a memorial, a form of remembrance that has become increasingly questioned in the age of the critical postmodern deconstruction of archives, preservation, erasure, and the culture of loss. To put it simply: we exist at a wondrous moment in history, namely that — be it a curse or blessing — the Information Age has left created the distinct task of processing vast amounts of historical information while simultaneously engaged in a planetary-minded progression into the future. That is why “contemporaneity” is apt terminology for our specific moment in history, regardless of the term’s inevitable and paradoxical historicization.
Never before have we been so con temps, or “with time.” We are now truly with it — all of it — and need to find a way to progress forward unencumbered. But how are we to navigate being with time and history simultaneously? Academics and artists for the past century have grappled with this question, expressing disinterest in modernist forms of memorial. It is no longer acceptable to merely remember via the memorial — a Derridean fever to save the past so that we might someday return to it — but we desire a way to preserve and memorialize that allows for a certain level of participation, a progression forward instead of a regression backwards. What form might a memorial take to insure that it adds to the conversation rather than acting as a nostalgic caesura? I believe Prentice Windows is an apt answer.
“My natural inclination is to sympathize with preserving the building but I also understand the to-move-is-to-destroy mentality of site-specific sculpture,” Floyd — one of Prokash’s co-curators from the piece’s first exhibition — mused, considering what connection remains between Prentice and Prentice Windows. “Prokash’s piece fits somewhere in a middle ground of not saving the building or memorializing it but preserving the set of concepts that Goldberg utilized in its design. [Prentice Windows] is a different kind of preservation that speaks to contemporary ideas of archiving within art that is grounded in creating new content as oppose to maintaining old content.”
Prentice Windows is clearly a distinct piece of art apart from Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital. This was done by design to allow the building’s immense history and set of ideological and emotional concepts—the rough poetry of its Brutalist ethics—to be recontextualized ad infinitum. Whereas the Chicago Stock Exchange arch will always be a constant reminder of its potential destruction, Prentice Windows remind us that there can be life after demolition. “We all want to connect to loss,” Prokash said, “It feels good to fight for something. Naturally it is something we do as human beings.” Put simply: Prentice Windows displays our ability to use our past rather than be held back by it. This might be its single, most important message to those who eulogize Prentice’s destruction.
The current plans for the piece is uncertain. Prokash, beginning the summer in Europe will finish it in China at an artist’s residency. What occupies him presently is the need to protect the windows. Despite their size each windows is incredibly fragile and when coupled with their weight it becomes a hazard to move or display them. For this, adequate crating and storage is needed. After this, Prokash anticipates the recently announced Chicago Architecture Biennial—slated to begin in the fall of 2015—to provide a venue to discuss the work of Bertrand Goldberg, the failures of preserving Prentice, and how the building might continue to live despite its destruction. Prentice Windows is a vital focal point for this discussion and will hopefully bridge a gap between those still wanting to see what can come from the momentum to save Prentice and those new to the conversation. “A quintessential aspect to the piece is that it creates conversation,” Prokash said. “It’s this dialogue that I’m really interested in and how to maintain it.”
Joshua Michael Demaree lives in Philadelphia where he works at an independent bookstore. He is both a licensed driver and a dedicated taxpayer.