Looking Up: Architecture critic Blair Kamin takes on the art we live with

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Aqua/Photo: Steve Hall- Hedrich Blessing

By Ella Christoph

The first decade of the new millennia was a “Dickensian construction zone, in which it was the best and the worst of times,” Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin tells me. But his is a tale of just one city, the best and worst impossible fully to untangle. The same city that held the drawings for the original soaring Chicago Spire building now peers vexingly into the pit unfilled by the unbuilt, unsoaring Spire.

But Chicago isn’t just wrapping up a Dickensian decade. We’re wrapping up the Daley dynasty, and Kamin’s prescient reflection on the past decade isn’t just about the new buildings that went up here. Kamin, who earlier won a coveted Pulitzer Prize for his work, compiled a selection of his columns from the last ten years in his new book, “Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age.”

Although Kamin didn’t know Mayor Richard M. Daley would be leaving when he put the book together, he knew architecture is about more than I-beams and sheets of glass. While his columns aren’t limited to buildings in Chicago, many of the buildings he looks at are nearby—most of them in the Loop. So the collection of columns is not just about the legacy of a decade. It is also about the legacy of a mayor who centered his efforts on the rebuilding and reinvigoration of the city center. The redevelopment of the Loop drove Daley’s mayorship, earning him praise, and votes, as he turned Chicago from bleak city center to tourism and business epicenter of the Midwest.

Now that Daley is on his way out, Kamin’s book gives his columns, already once-published and read, greater meaning through their ability to pinpoint what went well, and what didn’t, under Daley—and not necessarily because of him. Perhaps more importantly, they challenge us to consider what we want from our next mayor—not just architecturally, but as a city in its entirety, because architecture is in conversation with society, and if one or the other doesn’t hold up its end of the dialogue, the other will turn ugly too.

Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies

In your book, you talk a lot about the Chicago government and the city’s responsibility to encourage good architecture. What would you like to see happen within the government to improve the quality of buildings that go up in Chicago?

Here’s the question that I’d want to ask Rahm and Gery Chico and Carol Braun. ‘Did Mayor Daley do the right thing by carving giant ‘Xs’ in the runway at Meigs Field?’ Because Daley thinks it was a great, heroic act on his part. He was heroically seizing a portion of the lakefront from private interests and giving it to the public as Daniel Burnham would have wanted. Are we going to have more years of ‘My way or the highway,’ or are we going to have something resembling democracy?

In some ways the city has responded to the outrage over the ugly condominium and apartment buildings that went up in the early part of the just-finished decade. The city got better as the decade went along. I think that some of the newer buildings that aren’t in the book, the “glass giants” I wrote about a few months ago—these were buildings that were far more attractive and far more integrated into the city than a lot of the concrete brutes, the “plop architecture” buildings that everyone hated so much at the beginning of the decade.

So when you lay out your criticisms, or praise, for a building, how do you know whether to direct it at the city or at the architect?

City bureaucrats can help to prevent bad things from happening, but they can’t legislate good design. They can’t give us the best of the best—that’s really up to individual talents, someone with an idea and a way to articulate and execute it.

But the architects of our built environment are often not the architects themselves. They may be politicians, developers, the police—any number of forces that shape the way things really turn out. So if I simply walked into a space or a building and wrote about that and blamed the architect for the outcome, that would be naive and would also not give the reader a clear picture of what actually had happened. A painter can grab a canvas and make a painting. A sculptor can pick up a piece of clay or a hunk of marble and start working. Architects can’t do that. Their work is far more collaborative and is far more dependent on other people who have power over money, who control politics and who build their vision.

There are things you can glean from talking to an architect. They’ve spent like five years worrying about a building, so they’re just going to have a sharper hand on it than someone who was coming to it with less experience. I think that architecture critics have far more credibility if they write about the real world that shapes our buildings rather than simply the closed-off realm of aesthetics that is its own little existence in its own little vacuum. When people talk about buildings, yes they talk about architects but they also talk about all these other factors. ‘I had a great client; the city was against me, the neighbors were screaming at me and I had to change the building for this reason.’

The Art Institute of Chicago Modern Wing North Façade/Photo: Dave Jordano.

In the last decade, there’s been a huge emphasis on one of these ‘other factors,’ even among architects themselves—sustainability and green architecture.

I think we’re going to see an increased emphasis on green design and building performance. Does a building really save energy, or is it an example of greenwashing, where we’re simply throwing a few green features on a building and not really saving energy?

That’s really an area where I think Daley has been very positive. He deserves credit. He was ahead of the curve on that one in building the green roof on City Hall, in requiring public buildings to be LEED-certified. In doing those things, he really led the private sector and helped to get them playing the green game. But are the new candidates going to continue to carry that ball forward or are they going to let it drop?

What are some other trends in architecture that will be important in the next decade?

Right now we’re clearly in an age of austerity rather than an age of excess. So first of all we’re going to see fewer splashy icon buildings. In the Depression, architecture became noticeably more austere. In Chicago, the effervescence and exuberance of the Jazz Age, the twenties, was best exemplified by the Carbide and Carbon Building, which was said to look like a bottle of champagne. You get all the fizz of the decade, the exuberance, captured in that design. A few years later, in the Field Building that’s now the LaSalle Bank Building on LaSalle Street, you saw noticeably more austere design. The walkway through that building is very elegant—it’s often said Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would look great dancing the night away in that concourse. But the design clearly became more restrained. Today, with unemployment near ten percent, it’s not just that clients don’t have the money to build flashy buildings, they don’t want to build flashy buildings. It’s almost a sin to look like you’re flaunting it. It’s become unacceptable, in contrast to the age of bling, when everybody thought it was cool to build these extravagant monuments.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Austere buildings don’t necessarily mean ugly buildings. When architects are forced to make hard choices it often forces them to decide what’s essential. Lean buildings can be beautiful and speak to our spirits. I suspect that in the next ten years we’re going to see a lot of that, and that’s really going to stretch the creativity of designers.

In your book, you argue that there was no predominant style of the decade—no equivalent to the Beaux-Arts or modernist or postmodernist movements. Maybe we can predict more austere buildings, but can we make any predictions about style movements?

There is no predominant style right now, because we’re clearly in a pluralistic age. The architectural culture is as divided and as bitterly contested as the culture at large. Just as we are split between a red and a blue America, so you could argue that we are split between the radicals and the traditionalists. But even within the ranks of the modernists, there’s no clearly accepted style. They’re all one-man bands. You’ve got the Frank Gehry iconic look, the Santiago Calatrava iconic look, Zaha Hadid’s iconic look. I think that reflects where we are as a culture, that individualism is emphasized as never before. It’s a cafeteria-style approach, not a highly integrated approach where one style is dominant. There isn’t one true way in architecture, and frankly, that may be a good thing. Why should there be? We live in a pluralistic culture, and so why shouldn’t we have pluralistic architecture?

The downside is that without accepted parameters about what the built environment should look like, everything is negotiable, everything is up for grabs, everything is subjective. We have individual masters, but we don’t have schools of thought and clearly accepted ways of doing things. It’s kind of like having a baseball team and one slugger and nine mediocre hitters. So you’ll have a building like Aqua, Jeanne Gang’s building on Lakeshore East, surrounded by a series of mediocrities that look like they parachuted in from China.

If everything is subjective, how can your columns make an argument about which buildings are “sluggers” and which ones aren’t?

When I’m doing my job right, I’m letting you participate in this conversation that seems arcane but ultimately has an impact on your environment, your quality of life. I want people who read the columns to realize that there are conscious choices about the way a building, or a public space, or a work of infrastructure looks and works, and that there are always alternatives—sometimes better ones—to the designs they are experiencing. I want them to be free to be dissatisfied with what they’re seeing, and to demand something better. That dissatisfaction can extend to almost anything. It can be a small city park that isn’t welcoming because it has no benches or places to sit. It can be a building that is spectacularly monolithic and ugly because the designers haven’t thought through how it will look from a range of different scales.

Blair Kamin/Photo: Charles Osgood-Chicago Tribune

What’s the trick to turning these abstract concepts, like accessibility and proportion and scale, into something the average Trib reader wants to read and understands?

I want the reader to start realizing that architecture is the art we live with and that it’s really as important as the air we breathe or the water we drink. It’s a tightrope walk, to make the arguments intelligible to the layperson but also express them in a way that the professional will also still respect. You really have to know the concepts, and then the key is to try and crystallize them in ways that make them come alive for the layperson. I’m not a fan of Soldier Field. I am not particularly enamored of the way it mixes a very asymmetric dynamic, modernist aesthetic with the symmetrical, balanced aesthetic of Beaux-Arts classicism. So that’s the architect-babble way to say that, but the zippy way to say that for the reader is that it’s Klingon meets Parthenon. Phrases like that are the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. You want the lightning to come through to the reader and to stick with the reader with those memorable phrases. And usually the professionals like those too, because everybody, you know, loves the zingers.

How do you go from writing about buildings and spaces to writing about the government, the city, the people, and their values?

I did another collection nine years ago, and one of the reviewers, Robert Fishman, from the University of Michigan, had a really perceptive comment. He said something along the lines that I was opening up this closed world of developers and city officials and becoming an essential democratic interlocutor in a civic conversation about architecture.

Reported essays, that’s the key. The series I did on the lakefront that was instrumental in the Pulitzer entry in 1998 was clearly reported essays. It had elements of investigative reporting in it, and it never could have been done simply by walking around the lakefront and saying, ‘Well, I don’t think it looks very good.’ That would not have had the same impact that it did if it had not been reported.

The second story in the lakefront series, on why the area between McCormick Place to Promontory Point is what it is, was not just about aesthetics. It was about race. It had to do predominantly with race and class. That was an area of the city that was filled with poor black people and they were routinely ignored in a kind of benign neglect for decades. It’s only been in the last ten years really that that area has started, and I stress started, to improve along the lakefront. There are still glaring deficiencies, like the pedestrian bridges in that area. These are these rusting, ugly pedestrian bridges that issue a non-invitation. Those are particularly glaring examples of the inequality between the North and the South Sides. Those things are rooted in politics and race and class, they are not about aesthetics, although aesthetics was important in analyzing all of that, putting it into a larger framework.

In your book you argue that the stimulus package didn’t fix infrastructure problems on the grand scale Obama had hoped for—you write in your final postscript, “If Illinois was any guide, state departments of transportation were spreading asphalt and concrete like so much peanut butter.” Do you think there is more—and better—infrastructure improvement to come?

Climate change is certainly off the table politically. But I don’t know about infrastructure. There may be some Republicans who will support it because it’s pork in their district. It’s like public works, and everybody wants public works. So I wouldn’t necessarily rule that out, and I hope.

The most important postscript in the whole book is the last one, because that postscript connects the ruins of the World Trade Center and the ruins of our infrastructure. The first set of ruins was caused by terrorist fanatics; the second set of ruins is a set of ruins of our own making, by virtue of negligence rather than violence. I think it’s especially important now, given that many Republicans ran against the stimulus bill. Well, okay, so what are we going to do about our infrastructure? The country’s falling apart, we have roads, bridges, levies that are crumbling. Are you telling me that you’re just going to let those things continue to fall apart? Then how can a country grow, and how can we compete globally against countries that are tending to their infrastructure? If we ignore the lessons of those ruins and continue to let our infrastructure crumble, then the most important lesson of the book is ignored.

One Response to “Looking Up: Architecture critic Blair Kamin takes on the art we live with”

  1. Green Architecture Says:

    I love the building designs and architecture on those two pics you provided. Could you imagine a world where you walk around and everywhere you look is surrounded by beautiful structures like this.

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