Northwestern University’s Medical Research Center Competition

by Dan Madryga

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The finalists (from left to right): Perkins+Will, Adrian Smith+Gordon Gill, Goettsch Partners

Northwestern University is getting a major architectural facelift. Over the past few years, the university has staged several invited design competitions for large-scale building projects on its Chicago and Evanston campuses. A new 152,000 square foot building for the Bienen School of Music and Communication, designed by Goettsch Partners, is currently under construction and slated to open later this year. Meanwhile the 410,000 square foot Kellogg School of Business—for which Toronto firm KPMB beat out Kohn Pedersen Fox, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, and Pelli, Clark & Pelli for the commission—is expected to be ready for occupancy in 2016. As large as these projects are, Northwestern’s most recent invited competition dwarves them both in scale, budget, and ambition: a brand new Medical Research Center for the Feinberg School of Medicine.

 

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Bienen School of Music © Goettsch Partners
 
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Kellogg School of Business © KPMB

The new Medical Research Center is a huge undertaking for Northwestern. Once complete it will introduce 1.2 million square feet of state-of-the-art lab space, with which the University expects to attract an additional $150 million a year for medical research, as well as create 2,000 new full-time jobs. Needless to say, the project is at the forefront of the university’s projected master plan.

 

Of course the architectural evolution of any urban campus necessitates some selective purging of the existing building stock. For the Medical Research Center’s central location on the Chicago campus, this has unfortunately meant the loss of Bertrand Goldberg’s 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital. This move created no small amount of controversy amongst preservationists and fans of Goldberg’s distinctive, sculptural concrete cloverleaf form. Goldberg was a Chicago architect—a protégé of Mies van der Rohe—who also designed the instantly recognizable twin corncob towers of Marina City. Originally hailed for its innovative engineering and striking form, the Prentice took an innovative approach to organizing medical wards in clusters, thus lending to its distinct form. General reactions have always been mixed: for some it was an iconic work of Brutalism, for others it was simply an eyesore. Either way the hospital was clearly dated by the 21st century standards of functionality, and Northwestern’s development future did not include the Prentice.

 

Proponents of the Prentice pulled out all the stops to try and save the endangered hospital. Preservationist groups sought to protect it with a Landmark status designation that was ultimately denied. Chicago’s Studio Gang offered up a striking design idea that would save and incorporate the Prentice into the new research center. The efforts even extended to an ideas competition. In 2012, the Chicago Architectural Club organized “Future Prentice” as the timely theme of the annual Chicago Prize Competition. Entrants were challenged to find creative solutions for repurposing the old hospital building, in hopes that thought-provoking design could spark a useful public dialogue about solutions that went beyond full-on preservation or wholesale demolition. In addition to the 71 entries received, the Chicago Architectural Club commissioned designs from ten up-and-coming local architecture firms. Together these 81 ideas were displayed at the Chicago Architecture Foundations “Reconsidering an Icon” exhibit in late 2012 and early 2013.

 

The Future Prentice entries ranged from compelling yet largely grounded adaptive reuse ideas (the first prize entry by Cyril Marsollier and Wallo Villacorta imagines the Prentices distinctive concrete shell as a museum presented amongst the boxy volumes of a new research lab facility), to wildly left-field theoretical concepts (the second prize entry by Noel Turgeon and Natalya Egon, where various architectural additions are vertically stacked upon the Prentice to form a “timeline of trends in architecture”). In the end, the competition might have created an interesting dialogue but not with the people who really needed convincing. Given the longstanding plans to demolish the vacant hospital, Northwestern made it clear that all ideas for saving the Prentice would not be seriously reviewed by the University. Like the attempts to enact landmark status, the Future Prentice ideas competition was too little, too late.

 

Not long after the ideas competition came and went, Northwestern officially released their request for qualifications for the new Medical Research Center, with proposals due in April 2013. The RFQ was sent to 23 architecture firms, six of which were local Chicago firms, and most of which had previous experience in large research and medical projects.

 

Northwesterns program called for a research center that would be implemented in two phases. Phase 1 will consist of a 600,000 square foot, 12-story mid-rise complex to fit the former site of the Prentice, with a groundbreaking slated for early 2015 and completion forecasted for 2018 or 2019. It will also serve as a base for the second phase, capping Phase 1 with a multistory tower featuring even more lab space and offices. It should be noted that there is currently no timetable or funding in place for the Phase 2 tower. Thus it is of particular importance that the design for Phase 1 does not end up looking like a vacant pedestal, should Northwesterns long-term development goals not pan out.

 

The design criteria included: an iconic design that respected the campus context and would be a major asset to Northwestern, the Streeterville neighborhood, and the Greater Chicago community; a building that best met all the functional needs of the Medical School; a building that could be easily implemented in two phases; a design that respected and enhanced the neighborhood connections at ground level (particularly with the labs of the adjacent Lurie Medical Research Center); and a design that provided extensive green space. The University also expected at minimum a LEED silver ranking.

 

Similar to Northwesterns most recent invited competitions, the RFQ procedure was a hybrid between a pure design competition and an interview. Or rather a series of interviews, as the shortlisted teams underwent a series of meetings during the design phase with the client group. The university prefers that the names of this evaluation committee remain anonymous, although Northwestern spokesperson Alan Cubbage has disclosed that the group included members of the University Board of Trustees as well as key administrators of the Feinberg School of Medicine. Two outside architects also sat in as advisors.

 

During these design meetings, the committee offered comments and critiques to each shortlisted team. Northwestern has chosen to keep the specifics of these meetings confidential, but we do know through reliable sources that the each team felt that the evaluation comments were well founded, and that no single competitor was singled out for criticism.

 

By November of 2013, the three shortlisted teams final designs were ready for a final verdict. In a gesture of transparency, Northwestern officially unveiled the resulting shortlist designs in an exhibit at the Lurie Medical Research Center. The university welcomed and recorded comments from faculty, staff, students, and other visitors to this public display. The three projects on display were by Perkins+ Will, Adrian Smith+Gordon Gill, and Goettsch Partners. It is good to see that all three firms have local Chicago offices; it seems fitting to replace a building by the indelibly Chicagoan architect Goldberg with a new generation of successors.

 

A casual observer of the shortlisted designs could be forgiven for finding them all remarkably similar. In fact, no one design stands out as wildly out of the box, an obvious winner. Instead we see three elegant, highly competent, if rather predictable options. Part of this stems from the nature of the building program—the rigid constraints of medical and research facilities often have a way of confining creativity. Theres also the persistent issue of making glazed skyscrapers energy efficient. Each entry uses high-performance building skins, which give them similar façade materiality and depth, not to mention employment of textbook sun shading techniques (cue the obligatory vertical fritted glass fins on the east and west facades). Just as the chunky Brutalism of the Prentice had become emblematic of 1970s modern architecture, the sleek, crystalline forms of the shortlist are very much of our own time. Theres nothing wrong with that, but it would have been interesting to see at least one unconventional curve ball, even if it had no chance of winning the commission. *

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