News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

Not so fast, Northwestern

Prentice's reprieve from the wrecking ball allows a look at NU's tear-down rationale—and the alternatives



Last Thursday, just a few hours before the Chicago Architectural Club was to announce the winners of its global contest to design a reuse for Bertrand Goldberg's iconic but doomed Prentice Hospital building, things took a dramatic turn.

Preservationists filed suit in Cook County court to stave off the building's imminent destruction, and Judge Neil Cohen granted a stay that'll prevent Northwestern University from getting a demolition permit while the suit is pending.

For the building's fans, it was a sweet moment. The contest, which had been conducted under the shadow of a wrecking ball, was suddenly infused with renewed purpose.

"Now," said architect and competition judge Martin Felsen, "there's at least a moment of reprieve."

The plaintiffs in the case are Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They're suing both the city and the Chicago Commission on Public Landmarks, which on November 1 granted landmark protection to the building, only to rescind it the same afternoon.

The suit alleges that the commission illegally employed a rushed procedure with a predetermined outcome. It seeks to void the vote that took away the city's briefest-ever landmark designation.

News of the judge's ruling spread quickly, lifting spirits among the overflow crowd that gathered at the Chicago Architecture Foundation for the awards. "Reconsidering an Icon," the accompanying CAF exhibit, showcases the winners along with ten invited solutions, offering a slide show of all 71 entries, each of which preserves Goldberg's building while accommodating Northwestern's desire for a new medical research building on the Prentice site.

On the podium Felsen explained that the judges met to select winners 36 hours after Mayor Rahm Emanuel sealed the building's fate by siding with NU in favor of destruction. That decision probably influenced their choices, he said: instead of focusing on saving Prentice, the judges may have been nudged toward more imaginative ideas. The striking first-place winner, by Cyril Marsollier and Wallo Villacorta, proposes a massive new reflective-glass building that would settle on and ingest half of Prentice's distinctive cloverleaf of concrete cylinders.

NU officials—who were invited to the event but apparently didn't show up—have insisted that the university needs to build a new medical research facility on the slice of land occupied by Prentice (instead of, say, the empty lot across the street) because that'll give them "critical adjacency" to the Lurie Medical Research Center next door. They say it's absolutely necessary to bridge the two buildings floor by floor, so that the 2,000 people who'll work in the new building can easily mix with the 700 or so already working in Lurie. The idea is that they'll chitchat around the coffee machine, and this will make the difference between finding cures for devastating diseases or dooming humanity to suffer.

As you'd expect, Northwestern says its plan has been guided by the latest research on facility design. But you might be surprised at the source. When I asked about it, I was directed to "Groupthink," a breezy article by Jonah Lehrer that ran in the New Yorker earlier this year. It's this piece, among others, that prompted Lehrer to resign from his job as a staff writer there, after admitting that he'd fabricated quotes and lifted statements from other sources. In "Groupthink" the dicey quotes are from Noam Chomsky and a Chomsky associate, reminiscing about the fertile atmosphere of MIT's Building 20. But they're arguably not as problematic as the stuff that didn't get Lehrer in hot water—like his freewheeling use of anecdote and snippets of research to arrive at oversimplified conclusions the data wouldn't necessarily support.

"Groupthink" reports on a half-dozen pieces of research, but the one Northwestern has been leaning on is a study led by Harvard Medical School professor Isaac Kohane on the relationship between the physical distance separating coauthors of research papers and the impact of their work. (Here impact's measured by the number of times a paper is cited in other publications.) Kohane and his coauthors found that the closer researchers are, the more citations their work gets. Lehrer infers a causal relationship from this, and that's what NU is also arguing: put a large, diverse group of researchers in an environment where they'll all bump off each other ("the most creative spaces are those which hurl us together," Lehrer writes), and they'll make great discoveries.

But as Kohane and his colleagues allow in their own analysis, what they've found is an association, not necessarily a cause. Both their study and its results were limited in numerous ways not mentioned by Lehrer, the most relevant for NU being that it primarily picked up on pairs of people working in the same lab or department. As Harvard Medical School research associate Kyungjoon Lee, one of Kohane's coauthors, confirmed in a phone interview, that typically means a postdoc or graduate student laboring on the work of his mentor, in the mentor's own lab.

The high-impact work coming from these high-proximity pairs is not the result of wide, serendipitous social interaction. On the contrary, it reflects relationships that are deliberate, narrowly focused and highly selective.

And once you're out of the single lab or building, once you have researchers working in huge separate structures, it doesn't look like it'll make much difference whether they're next door, across the street, or down the block.

Also, as noted in Kohane's study, the number of coauthors is a better predictor of impact than physical proximity. The more authors, the more citations, even if those authors are spread around the globe.

So is it good for researchers to rub elbows? Sure. Kohane's study suggests that laboratories should be designed to facilitate face time among collaborators. But in spite of nostalgic anecdotes about Chomsky and MIT, Northwestern's main justification for destroying Prentice isn't backed up by the research cited in "Groupthink."

Maybe NU will use this moment of reprieve to reconsider; maybe the folks who make the decisions there will drop in at CAF for a look at the opportunities preservation offers. There's a graceful third-place entry, for example, that imagines Prentice as the center of a more interactive, people-friendly campus than the one they've got now.

Meanwhile, the city says the landmarks commission's procedure was perfectly legal. It's seeking a dismissal of the preservationists' suit.

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