The Battle To Save Gropius’s Buildings Is A Battle To Remember Them

Just after I wrote my last post, I was sent this article in the Christian Science Monitor (“Battle to save Chicago’s Gropius architecture” http://bit.ly/LlQkx).  Reading it brought many different ideas and questions to mind.  This complex of hospital buildings, recently discovered to have been designed by Walter Gropius, were originally part of a hospital on the South Side of Chicago that went bankrupt two years ago.  I had never heard of the Michael Reese Hospital, nor had I see these buildings in “Chicago’s Famous Buildings”.  Now I learn that these were Gropius buildings, extant examples of the Modernist aesthetic in both design and planning.  The Illinois Institute of Technology campus, not far from here, was where Chicago’s Modernist legacy took root with the arrival of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe from Germany, and later, Walter Gropius. Both complexes are on the South Side, the historically poor and rundown part of the city.  But one, a university, still thrives, while the other, a distressed local hospital, is gone.  The property was acquired by the City of Chicago and is to be redeveloped into an Olympic Village for the 2016 Olympics, which Chicago has bid to host.  If that doesn’t happen, the property will, according to the city, be developed into a residential complex to invigorate the neighborhood.  You don’t have to be an urbanite to look at that with a certain skepticism.  Tell me about the hospital, and who it served.  How did that population change?  How did the nature of healthcare and inner-city health care delivery change over the years to weaken this hospital to the point of closure?  I want someone to tell me the broader context in which these buildings stood.

I also saw how buildings don’t become eligible for landmark status unless they’ve stood for fifty years.  How long are buildings now expected to last?  Significantly less, it seems, if one considers the materials used to construct them, the timelines for completing them, the accelerating advance of technology that makes some materials unavailable a decade later.  Are we seeing buildings become more and more temporal as we find fewer things to be permanent enough to make monumental (institutions, neighborhoods, communities)?

Where once there was a hospital – the last time anyone really looked, it seemed – there now is a parcel of land being contested for brand new development.  How many years of slow and steady decay took place?  Why were these stories allowed to be forgotten?  Why were these buildings – modern, but without the fanfare of a big name architect to merit a capital “M” – forgotten by their creator’s followers and left to weather in the distressed slums?  There were reasons, defensible reasons.  But why do we only look selectively?  Why are we so surprised?  We now have the means to keep the stories alive.

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