Last week, longtime Chicago Tribune architecture Blair Kamin announced that his last day at the paper would be January 15. Over the past 28 years, Kamin built a sterling reputation as one of the leading architectural critics in the world. But Kamin took a buyout from the cost-cutting publication, bringing his tenure to an end. That leaves the country’s third largest city without an architecture critic.
His written criticisms have impacted our world. His Pulitzer Prize-winning series about the racial disparity of North and Southside Chicago lakeside parks led officials to turn 10 miles of shoreline into more equitable public space. He has also taken powerful people to task, including celebrities George Lucas and Donald Trump: When George Lucas proposed a museum for Chicago, Kamin was the first to point out its unruly size; when Donald Trump built a skyscraper in the city, Kamin’s critique led the architecture firm SOM to rework its design (but it didn’t prevent Trump from adding his name to the building in comically huge letters).
As Kamin prepares to sign off, he talks to us about the current state of architecture criticism and why, especially in the Trump era, it’s a field as relevant as ever.
Fast Company: When you were offered a buyout, did you feel like you should stay, just so Chicago retained an architecture critic?
Blair Kamin: This is something I’ve thought about for at least a year. And it’s a decision I didn’t make lightly. A 28-year run is a long run for an architecture critic.
Look, it’s really important that there be a full-time architecture critic in Chicago. It’s important to maintain the dialog. It’s important for the watchdog function that the architectural critic serves. Leaving the Tribune has been a difficult decision for that reason. On the other hand, there’s never a good time to go. If this didn’t happen now, it’s going to happen later. At some point, the newspaper has to decide if it wants to continue having an architecture critic.
Everybody is wondering: Are you going to be replaced, and if so, who is going to replace you? My answer is I don’t know. I hope the Tribune will replace me. If it doesn’t, I hope that the conversation [about Chicago architecture] will go on by an appointment of a critic at another media outlet. I’m working with people interested in continuing the conversation. I can’t go into a lot of detail about that.
FC: The Tribune‘s restaurant critic, Phil Vettel, also took a buyout. This leaves Chicago with no restaurant critic, either. But to me, professional criticism in the food industry is less necessary than architecture. At least you have platforms like Yelp to democratize food.
BK: It’s three critics! Howard Reich, our classical music and jazz critic, is taking a buyout as well.
FC: Sorry, three critics! But I’d make the same point about music as I would about food criticism. Those topics have public platforms while architecture really doesn’t.
BK: That’s a strong observation, about the forums that exist, Yelp for food. I think the reason for that disparity has to do with this: Architecture is the inescapable art, the art that does more than any art to shape how we live. But people don’t consume it in the same way they do a meal or a ticket to a rock concert. So in that sense it’s disadvantaged from the standpoint of not having one of those forums.
My role has been to ‘make that link between the public and public realm,’ as Ada Louise Huxtable, who stated this role for the New York Times, once said. The role is also democratizing the inescapable art which tends to be esoteric, tends to have its practitioners speaking in that indecipherable language I call “archi-babble.”
I don’t know if there ever will be a forum like Yelp for architecture, but it’s essential that criticism go on. The stakes are so high! A meal is a meal. You eat it, and it’s done. Music goes on obviously by being replayed but you don’t have to [live with it in the same way].
Architecture’s impact is long-lasting and goes beyond aesthetics or momentary pleasure. Architecture isn’t deterministic. A good building will not make good people. But architecture can open or close doors in terms of opportunity and in terms of how we live. One thing I’ve talked about is that I look at architecture not just as an aesthetic or technical marvel, but a vessel of human possibility.
FC: And architectural criticism can keep the field honest?
BK: It’s really, really important to have critics who, at their best, can deliver lighting bolts that say, “This is a horrible idea. Don’t do it.” “Don’t put a Holiday Inn glass box on top of Chicago’s Union Station.” (It didn’t happen.) Or, ‘The lakefront in Chicago is divided by the chasm of race, address it.” Over the last 22 years since I wrote that series on the lakefront, it has really changed.
There’s that immediate impact a critic can have, and then there’s the long-term impact of discussion . . . a series of values over time that have an impact on how people think about architecture, and then how they build it.
FC: I feel this way in critiquing design, technology, and Silicon Valley sometimes. The practice of criticism isn’t just about reporting a story to an audience; it’s about leaving a dent in the industry.
BK: Sometimes it is important to dent, or tweak, or open someone’s eyes to a vision. But the most important part is just the conversation, given the stakes. It’s important that conversation occurs, and it not only raises people’s awareness of architecture, but also elevates their expectations for the field.
FC: What’s the most pressing matter for architecture today?
BK: Equity and the environment. And I don’t mean to be PC. If Americans are going to lead a good life, it’s imperative they live it in a good environment, with opportunities for basic things, a good house, good parks, [and] access to jobs [that] are widely available. So that’s one thing. And I think Biden’s infrastructure program offers an enormous opportunity to build equity. It can’t just be roads and bridges [a la Trump]. If it’s building back the same it’s not building back better.
And the environment. To quote Biden, it’s the existential question of our time. Buildings account for [tremendous] greenhouse gases. Architects have an impact on climate change. Many of them recognize that, but it’s important that the field continue to advance its understanding of climate change.
The issue is not, to summarize, postmodernism or deconstructionism. The issues are much broader.
FC: I’ve always loathed Chicago’s Trump tower, even before he added a big Trump sign on it. I’ve always felt it was just a big, soulless skyscraper blob on the river. And you liked it! Why?
BK: I’ve never raved about that building. I’ve called it “mostly handsome.” My initial review of the building was that it was a skyscraper of many faces, and depending where you saw it from, it was a very different building.
Look at the building on Wabash, and it looks like a super scale flatiron building, it’s thin and elegant. The problem is it’s a huge building. It has way more square footage than [Jeanne Gang’s nearby] Vista Tower. Given the geometry, and this is arcane, it’s a trapezoid. If you look at it from Michigan Ave, this is the view of it where you see the whole front of it. It’s massive. It isn’t particularly graceful from that angle. And what’s worse is it meets the sky in this real rinky-dink way. Richard Daley, the mayor, ordered Trump to put a spire on it. Trump being Trump did it, but in the cheapest way possible. He put up this little itty bitty thin spire. Compared to the Chrysler Building it’s a joke. It’s a really weak spire. He just totally wimped out on it. To Trump’s credit, the building has a very nice curtain wall, a blend of glass and stainless steel fins on the exterior. That wasn’t cheap.
The building is not a great skyscraper, it’s a good skyscraper, it holds its own. It doesn’t destroy its surroundings. But of course, Trump really screwed it up with a stupid sign.
FC: Yes, the giant TRUMP sign that you can’t miss. Whenever I look at the skyline on the Chicago River, I can’t look away from that sign. Even to this day. I’ve never gotten used to it enough to tune it out.
BK: The reason is he put it near the bottom of the building [where it’s visible from the street]. The sign foreshadowed his narcissism. It’s all about me. He didn’t give a crap about how it affected one of the great civic spaces of Chicago. He just wanted to come in and broadcast his name in a shrieking voice to everybody so it would be impossible to miss.
There was this whole battle of the sign. I criticized it. He called me a third rate architecture critic on The Today Show. That sort of foreshadowed the way he’d smear people and turn journalists into the enemies of the people.
Today, in retrospect, the battle over the sign seems quaint. As high as the design stakes were on that, they were nothing in terms of the damage he’s wrought as president. Nearly 400,000 people dead in his response to coronavirus, five dead at the Capitol, the dialog of democracy poisoned with his awful rhetoric. It’s been dispiriting to watch his character, to watch him have this great power and be able to wreak havoc on a massive scale, that made what he did in Chicago seem like a trifle by comparison.
FC: What’s next for you?
BK: It’s been a great honor to do this job, an incredible adventure. I’ve gone to seven countries, every corner of Chicago, and been able to interview some of the great architects of our time. I’ve been hung up on by Frank Gehry. I’ve been hung up on by Donald Trump. I snuck into the Burj Khalifa wearing construction boots and a hard hat so I could get in and review it.
I’m not retiring; I’m taking an extended break. After 28 years, I just need a break.