Toward a Modernist Maternity: Architecture and the Maternal Environment at
the Prentice Women’s Hospital (1975-1985)
Speaker: Dr. Gina Greene, Postdoctoral Fellow, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholars Program, University of Pennsylvania
Date and Time: February 12, 2014, 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM in Room 435, Floor 4, Claire Fagin Hall
Abstract: This seminar will focus on reconstructing an architectural and institutional history of Chicago’s Prentice Women’s Hospital and Maternity Center, designed by famed late-modernist architect Bertrand Goldberg in the mid-1970s during a volatile era that witnessed the reemergence of a vocal women’s rights movement, a resurgence of interest in natural childbirth, and a strong feminist critique of modern medicine’s approach to childbirth. In a marked departure from the glass-and-steel hospital architecture of the era, architect Goldberg designed a cloverleaf concrete tower composed of rounded forms and ovular windows with a voluptuously “sci-fi” aesthetic (to paraphrase one architectural critic). In spite of its unusual design, the building now faces demolition due to technological and indeed ideological obsolescence. Prentice’s institutional history demonstrates how during the late sixties and early seventies, new ideas about women’s health and new technologies such as ultrasound and fetal heart monitoring transformed medical approaches to childbirth and pregnancy. The history of the evolution of Prentice’s architectural design permits insight into the ways the built environment reinforces practices and symbolically conveys ideas about gender, technology, and medical authority. The architect, Bertrand Goldberg, claimed that his design, with its organic, undulating concrete forms, was based on sociological research on space, and reflected a softer, more natural, and more humanizing approach to healthcare architecture. Indeed, innovative approaches to 'family-centered' care were built into the design. However, the design also begs to be interpreted as a bold codification of a techno-centric research agenda which used technology in tandem with women’s bodies to explore new frontiers of reproductive medicine. The glamorous modernity of the new kinds of medical care to be provided at Prentice in the 1970s – including ultrasound, fetal surgery, and in vitro fertilization – care that rendered the contents of the womb transparent, visible, and legible – was matched and expressed by the glamorous modernity of the built form of the hospital which, in spite of its opaque concrete patient towers, revealed a peculiar emphasis on visibility, technology, and privileged modes of looking.
Bio:Gina Greene completed her doctorate in Architectural History at Princeton University in 2012 and is currently a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research examines the intersection between public health and the built environment from a historical perspective. In her dissertation, she examines the collaborative efforts of physicians and architects in late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century France as they strove to reduce high rates of infant and child mortality through modifications to the built environment. The project makes a critical intervention into the history of early twentieth-century public health policy by demonstrating how architecture became intimately involved in broader social hygiene movements in France. As a Health & Society Scholar, Gina has continued studying the historical relationship between public health initiatives and architectural design, shifting her focus to an American context.
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