Post Post Occupancy: A Monument’s Afterlife

Joseph Altshuler reflects on alternative approaches to the death and commemoration of iconic buildings.

March 2, 2014

“What does it mean for a creative agent to ‘save’ (or design the ending aesthetics of) a building in the interest of architecture?”1  Save the Prentice from the Wrecking Ball: The Monument to Bruce, a project by Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer of Design With Company, imagines an alternative “ending” to Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, one of Chicago’s most architecturally significant and endangered Modernist buildings.  Not an architectural proposal in the traditional sense, the project employs narrative and design fiction to situate the existing building within its current contentious time and place.  By channeling Jorge Otero-Pailos’s call for “design [as] an ‘event’ of appropriation”2 and Superstudio’s tactics of destructive “salvage”3, Hicks and Newmeyer stage a new narrative surrounding the building’s afterlife that involves the speculative participation of “creative agents” that advance the architecture of Goldberg’s building by not saving it from its imminent demolition.  By instantiating the tactics of Otero-Pailos and Superstudio, The Monument to Bruce is a paradigmatic episode within the larger contemporary discourse on radical preservation.

Otero-Pailos suggests that preservation is a process to reveal what was not there before.  Unlike Viollet le Duc who argued for a preservation that aimed to realise and revitalise the original author’s presumed intent, Otero-Pailos underlines that it is impossible to imagine the conditions in a previous time and culture that allowed for a building’s construction.  As such, Otero-Pailos declares that singular authorship by an architect proper is an unproductive myth.  “Contemporary historic preservation emerged…as a means for various creative agents (such as ‘the public’), who had been relegated to the margins by the mythology of authorship, to lay claim to architecture and participate in its struggle to define it.” Moreover, Otero-Pailos argues that if buildings do not originate from a singular authoritative source, then those same buildings are not bound by the visions of their original schema. Conversely, they can contribute new meaning to the discipline:  “Existing buildings can further architecture even in the absence of an ‘original architect.’”5  While Otero-Pailos’s anti-hegemonic thesis is sound and politically appealing, he stops short of clearly defining who these creative agents are and how they operate.  The only indication he provides as to their identity is a parenthetical, vague suggestion of  “the public,”6 but as Otero-Palios conceded himself at his lecture at the Rice School of Architecture on November 15, 2012, “the public” is a fictional construct, not a discrete group of individuals.  The two examples that Otero-Pailos cites as compelling models for preservation practice, namely Gordon Matta-Clark’s Four Corners: Splitting and Mark Sandoval’s “saving” of the Stafford House, both involve a singular protagonist-artist (though Otero-Pailos insists that neither “Matta-Clark [nor] Sandoval are the ‘authors’ of the architecture in the buildings they worked on”7).  While Matta-Clark and Sandoval themselves may indeed be creative agents in the continuous histories of their respective existing buildings, long after the involvement of the “original architects,” neither project invites a broader public participation of stakeholding “creative agents.”  Perhaps, there are nonhuman creative agents at work in these projects as well, but Otero-Pailos leaves this possibility for speculation.  Additionally, Otero-Pailos doesn’t fully acknowledge his own idealism.  If indeed he is arguing for a broader public participation, this would require significant leadership, organisation, and cooperation.  Disparate constituencies do not tend to come together on their own; even bottom-up initiatives require considerable coordination.  Despite the lack of clarity surrounding the creative agents themselves, Otero-Pailos’s argument is productive in that it liberates preservation practice from a search for original authenticity and instead promulgates a creative approach in which the preservationist is invited to heighten an existing building’s intentional and unintentional aesthetics.  In this sense, preservation privileges intervention over conservation.

Flashback to 1972:  Superstudio’s Salvages of Italian Historic Centers exhibit preservation via creative intervention three decades prior to Otero-Pailos’s discourse.  The power of Superstudio’s project lies in its ostensibly dystopian polemic: “To salvage in order to destroy; to destroy in order to save yourself—in times of apocalypse, extremes meet and opposites equalise.”8  The project consists of six proposals to “save” Italian city centers from commercial banality and historic decimation.  The project’s satirical critique is that traditional preservation efforts are in fact exacerbating the “evil” inflicting the historic cities.  “Do you not see how every effort to correct mistakes… inevitably leads to errors more definitive, to disaster more irreparable, to ever more inevitable destruction?”9  As antidote to such backfiring earnestness, Superstudio invokes disaster logic, exploiting the notion that “preservation’s politics of expansion may be unstoppable, but it can at least be mined for new architectural possibilities.”10  For each city, Superstudio stages a site-specific, catastrophic intervention to annihilate the paralysis of history and to project an alternative: Venice’s canals are drained, Florence is flooded, Rome is buried in an archeological mound, Naples is transformed into a theme park, and Pisa is tilted.  Each intervention extracts the cities’ latent historical resource and proliferates it ad absurdum.  What makes Superstudio’s argument so strong is their potent combination of definitive un-earnestness and witty details of implementation.  Each bold move is accompanied by an array of humorous particulars that render the formal absurdities all the more “surprisingly plausible.”11  For example, in the now subaquatic Florence, “important artistic buildings could be waterproofed in order to make them visitable.  They could be outfitted with wharfs for docking and accessed through the towers and belfries that will have remained above water level.”12  For another example, olfactory machines embedded into the air condition system transmit aromas of Neapolitan delicacies within the now-domed Naples theme park.13  Superstudio purveys a unique brand of optimistic destruction, deployed to liberate Italy from the confines of authoritative history and conservation.

It is exactly this lineage of the traditional preservation movement’s ongoing “politics of expansion” that Hicks and Newmeyer challenge with Bruce.  Where Superstudio looked to the scale of major cities, Hicks and Newmeyer construct a culture of projective preservation around a single building.  No longer viable for its functional needs, Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital has been unoccupied since 2011.  Still, the Chicago architectural community is longing to “save” the building.  As it sits on valuable real estate within Northwestern University’s downtown Chicago medical campus, the cloverleaf, concrete Brutalist icon is slated for demolition, to be replaced by hi-tech research labs.  The story of the Monument to Bruce begins with a caricature of the many ill-fated addition proposals: “the last design for expansion had failed.  They called it M.U.F.F.I.N. T.O.P.: Moving Up From Figural Icons Now, To Overcome the Prentice.  The pedaled shell proved too confining.”14 [see Figure 1].

Figure 1

Figure 1

Like Superstudio, Hicks and Newmeyer turn to disaster logic to upend the political paralysis deadlocking the debate between the University officials and the Preservationists.  Hicks and Newmeyer resolve to proceed with demolition, while “saving” the wrecking ball and housing it within a monument as a physical landmark of the creative destruction that so galvanised the Chicago public.  By “affectionately” naming the special steel alloy ball “Bruce,” Hicks and Newmeyer anthropomorphise the hitherto inhumane act of demolition.  And by staging a social narrative around Bruce’s hoisting, Hicks and Newmeyer invite public participation into an act that is usually politically exclusive.  In addition, like Superstudio’s scenarios, the bold move of saving a wrecking ball and housing it in a new concrete monument is accompanied by an array of witty (and humorous) details that render its formal absurdities all the more surprisingly plausible.  For example, “A parade was arranged and the ball lumbered through the Chicago grid.  It was so heavy, the ‘float’ could only turn left in loops.  People chanted ‘Bruce’ but it sounded like ‘boooo…’”15 [see Figure 2].

Figure 2

Figure 2

Post-demolition, the retired wrecking ball swings like a pendulum within the cartoonish monument, poetically tracing and retracing the quatrefoil arcs of the Prentice footprint.16  [see Figure 3].

Figure 3

Figure 3

Hicks and Newmeyer identify and script creative agency in a way that Otero-Pailos only intimates.  The shortsighted architects, steelworkers, parade choreographers, and the public demolition spectators constitute a gaggle of creative agents that advance the architecture of Goldberg’s building precisely by not saving it from its imminent demolition [see Figure 4].

Figure 4

Figure 4

Bruce is the only entry in the Future Prentice exhibition that actively resists the competition brief which essentially called for adaptive reuse of the existing Goldberg structure.  In the same way that Superstudio may not want to literally realise their cataclysmic proposals, Hicks and Newmeyer may not want to actually tear down Goldberg’s Prentice.  But personal politics are irrelevant to the larger cultural politics of the projective scenarios.  Superstudio and Hicks and Newmeyer’s projects are not about “rehearsing”17 inevitable realities.  Rather, their projects aim to cultivate creative counter-intuition as a compelling tactic to challenge the unproductive (and sometimes counter-productive) strategies of the more earnest mainstream problem-solvers.  Salvages and Bruce are not stories about what should be; rather, they are stories about what could be.  And as both stories illustrate, perhaps a little destruction is required to liberate the world as it is, so as to gather new publics of creative agents around the pleasures of history [see Figure 5].

Figure 5

Figure 5

“This story is not a means to an end, it is the ends,”18 and per Otero-Pailos, it is a politically intentional and carefully aestheticized “designed ending.”  By literally preserving a wrecking ball instead of a building, Monument to Bruce is an act of radical preservation that privileges a story surrounding a building over the building itself.  And as Kevin Lynch instigates in Otero-Pailo’s epigraph, “Could we design our buildings to wreck well—that is, not only to be easy to destroy but spectacular as well?  There could be a visible event and a suitable transformation when a place ‘came of age’ or was about to disappear.”19 In spite of being politically unfashionable, Hicks and Newmeyer’s project proclaims that Prentice has indeed come of age.  Bruce is precisely the designed outcome of Lynch’s speculation.

Interior perspective.

Interior perspective.

 

 

Endnotes:

1  Jorge Otero-Pailos, “Creative Agents,” Future Anterior, III/1, (Summer 2006): vii.

2  Ibid.

3  Superstudio, “Salvages of Italian Historic Centers,” Log 22 (Spring/Summer 2011): 115

4  Jorge Otero-Pailos, “Creative Agents,” Future Anterior, III/1, (Summer 2006): vi.

5  Jorge Otero-Pailos, “Creative Agents,” Future Anterior, III/1, (Summer 2006): vi.

6  Ibid.

7  Ibid., v.

8  Superstudio, “Salvages of Italian Historic Centers,” Log 22 (Spring/Summer 2011): 115

9  Ibid.

10 Lucia Allais, “Disaster as Experiment: Superstudio’s Radical Preservation,” Log 22 (Spring/Summer 2011): 127

11  Sarah Whiting and Robert Somol, “Notes Around the Doppler Effect,” Perspecta 22 (2002): 76

12  Superstudio, “Salvages of Italian Historic Centers,” Log 22 (Spring/Summer 2011): 121

13  Superstudio, “Salvages of Italian Historic Centers,” Log 22 (Spring/Summer 2011): 116

14  Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer.  “The Monument to Bruce” in Future Prentice, Chicago Architecture Club: 2012 Chicago Prize Competition.

15 Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer.  “The Monument to Bruce” in Future Prentice, Chicago Architecture Club: 2012 Chicago Prize Competition.

16  Ibid.

17  Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer.  “The Monument to Bruce” in Future Prentice, Chicago Architecture Club: 2012 Chicago Prize Competition.

18  Ibid.

19  Kevin Lynch, as cited in Jorge Otero-Pailos, “Creative Agents,” Future Anterior, III/1, (Summer 2006): iii

 

Joseph Altshuler is an architectural designer and writer who is fascinated by the role of storytelling in architecture. He was proudly born at the old Prentice Women’s Hospital and is currently a master’s candidate at the Rice University School of Architecture. He is the editor of SOILED, an architectural periodical that makes a mess of the built environment and the politics of space. He also directs the activities of CARTOGRAM, an architecture collective that seeks to create meaningful spaces that produce new publics and challenge people to interact in new ways.

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