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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, from the farm to the Second City. Chicago loves and is loved for its architecture, but one of the city's most unusual buildings could soon be torn down. We're talking about Prentice Hospital on Chicago's North Side, designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg. The building's owners and the city government want to replace it with a new medical research center that they say could help bring the city jobs. Now, a group of preservationists are working to save the building. Edward Lifson has the story.

EDWARD LIFSON, BYLINE: Walk through downtown Chicago and you experience modern architecture to its fullest. There's the Auditorium Building by Louis Sullivan. There's the Federal Center by Mies van der Rohe. And there's Marina City by Bertrand Goldberg. Local band Wilco even put that building on the cover of an album.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIFSON: Architect Bertrand Goldberg was a visionary and a social progressive, important enough that the Art Institute here just gave him a major retrospective exhibition. On the north side of downtown Chicago by the lake stands - for now - Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital. Amidst blocks of boxy buildings, this one is box on the bottom and above what seems to be a concrete cloverleaf - light-grayish curving concrete - four joined, stacked cylinders springing up and out from a central stem, like a flower. Even the windows are curved. As she approaches this improbable building, MacArthur Award-winning architect Jeanne Gang can't take her eyes off of its powerful forms.

JEANNE GANG: It's experimental, it's inventive, it's just beautiful and curvilinear. You know, and the material allows it to do that because concrete is one of the few materials that will conform to a curve, pretty easily without too many complaints. And I really like that.

LIFSON: Northwestern University, which owns Prentice, may like it, but not enough to save it. If Prentice falls, the hospital will meet the same recent fate as other Chicago buildings associated with such giants of modern architecture as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, says city leaders should look to architecture as their brand.

JONATHAN FINE: This is about whether or not Chicago is going to remain the first city of American architecture. And you don't remain the first city of American architecture by destroying your great buildings.

LIFSON: Several international organizations have sprung up to help preserve buildings like Prentice, including DOCOMOMO, for documentation and conservation of the modern movement. Gunny Harboe represents group in Chicago. He says that modern buildings can be important without being pretty.

GUNNY HARBOE: One has to look at it in its much broader context of what does this building represent of its time, what does it say to us today about that time, and how do we use that as way of telling the story about who we are as a society?

LIFSON: Architect Bertrand Goldberg, who died in 1997, designed Prentice with an eye to improving health care. The building is round with a central core to give better sight lines and closer care from the central nursing station. But a hospital is not what Northwestern University needs there, says spokesman Al Cubbage. He says the school's primary missions are research and teaching.

AL CUBBAGE: I mean, the research that would be done in our new building is research into things like cancer, like ALS, like AIDS.

LIFSON: Cubbage says, yes, there are empty lots right around old Prentice, but the new building must connect directly to the school's existing research facilities. And Cubbage says Northwestern looked into repurposing the old building and determined it could not.

CUBBAGE: When it's complete, that new facilities going to employ some 2,000 people in high-paying permanent jobs in the city of Chicago.

LIFSON: And based on comments in newspapers, Chicagoans prefer new jobs to old concrete buildings. On the other side of the debate, some of the world's best-known architects, including Pritzker Prize winners, have come out in favor of preserving Goldberg's concrete curio. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is even pursuing legal means. But the man who could probably get Prentice a stay of execution, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, supports Northwestern's plan. In this city that usually means the jig is up. Again, Preservation Chicago's Jonathan Fine:

FINE: Will I personally be sad? Yes. But I think the bigger reaction would be what a horrible piece of vandalism that has befallen the city of Chicago.

LIFSON: Northwestern says it will hold an international design competition to make sure the building that replaces old Prentice Hospital is a piece of world-class architecture. Preservationists say they already have one. For NPR News, I'm Edward Lifson.

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