No one knows Chicago's buildings better than Blair Kamin.
In the time Blair Kamin has served as the Chicago Tribune’s architectural critic, building has gone bananas. The Twin Towers fell and the Trump Tower rose, historic preservationists have had to fight tooth and nail for significant buildings, Dubai has gone mile high and the Chicago Spire became the Chicago Pit. His new book, Terror and Wonder (University of Chicago Press, $30), collects his writing from nearly 20 years of work, from the Trib and elsewhere. We chatted with the critic via e-mail about everything from McDonald’s to Mies.
Looking back over the columns, what surprised you the most?
Without a doubt, it was the collapse of the World Trade Center’s south tower, which was the first of the Twin Towers to fall. It was utterly inconceivable that these iconic skyscrapers would disappear from the sky.
On a more positive note, I have been equally surprised by the rise of green architecture in the last few years. At the beginning of the decade, ecofriendly design was for people who wore Birkenstocks. In fact, green architecture has become so pervasive that it has devolved into “green sheen” or “green washing”—a grotesque exaggeration of a building’s energy-saving performance. My favorite example is the showcase McDonald’s in River North, which has a tiny green roof. Layering a few plants and shrubs on top of this exemplar of the car culture is like putting a piece of lettuce on a bacon double-cheeseburger and calling it healthy.
Was there a particular building or development that stands out as a sort of “greatest hit”?
In Chicago, that’s easy: Millennium Park. What had been an eyesore in the northwest corner of Grant Park—a gritty railroad yard and a dusty surface parking lot—became a post-industrial showcase of contemporary art and architecture. It remains Chicago’s most significant design achievement of the past two decades.
I remember your column about the Mies Test Cell building, and it’s here in the preservation section of your book. As a critic, how difficult is it for you to advocate on one building’s behalf over another’s?
It’s not difficult at all. If critics have one role, it is to distinguish between what has value and what doesn’t. While I am generally sympathetic to the preservation movement, I concluded that the Mies “Test Cell”—this squat brick hut at the Illinois Institute of Technology—was not worth saving, particularly because an important piece of city-enhancing infrastructure (a new Metra station) was going to replace it. The point is, you judge the architecture, not the architect. While Mies’s name was attached to this building, it was nonetheless expendable.
You wrote a column published last week about Daley’s unfinished projects. How big of a campaign issue do you see those projects being for mayoral candidates?
Although I’d love to see the candidates debating architecture and design, I strongly suspect that the campaign is more likely to focus on things like Daley’s parking-meter fiasco. What could—and should—become an issue, however, is the process of urban development. For good reason, people got tired of Daley’s “my way or the highway” style of governing. I once asked him why he didn’t follow the example of the Burnham Plan’s backers and let voters decide in referenda whether to back major public works projects. His reply was essentially this: “Referendums? You want referendums, you go to California.”
For the most part, this book collects columns from a time when building was booming. But a lot of that exuberance is disappearing. What do you see coming in the near future?
We’re certainly going to see fewer ambitious buildings. It’s a brutal time for architects. Their unemployment rate reportedly tops 40 percent. At the same time, we’d be foolish to turn our gaze away from the field of architecture and urban design. Think of all the important projects that are unfinished or unresolved—the Children’s Museum, Northerly Island, redesigning Navy Pier, South Works, mixed-income replacements for demolished public housing high-rises. It’s when we’re not paying attention that bad things are most likely to happen.