The Indicator: A Critic’s Terror and Wonder

Blair Kamin is the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune. He is the author, most recently, of Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age. We recently engaged in an email discussion about architecture as a social art, the importance of enlightened leadership, and about the critic as a tie-wearing “street fighter.”

GH: Whenever sites like ground zero come up, or New Orleans, architecture takes center stage for a brief moment. Park51, the so-called “ground zero mosque,” is also a good example of catalyzing architectural concern through controversy or trauma. When this happens the symbolic or political aspects of architecture get emphasized over everything else. This contributes to the notion that architecture is removed from day-to-day issues, that it is special, exotic, not next door. Do you think such architectural controversies help create more awareness of architecture and its day-to-day importance or do they ultimately make the public wary of “architecture” and architects?

See the complete discussion after the break.

BK: The controversies have simultaneously raised architecture’s profile and revealed its political limits. Far from being marginal, architecture and urbanism remain at the heart of the ongoing battles over rebuilding the World Trade Center site and New Orleans. What kind of city will emerge from the ruins left by the terrorists and Katrina? And how will that reflect on architects? If, for example, the new buildings and urban spaces at ground zero don’t achieve Daniel Libeskind’s aim of commemorating the dead and building a living city, then the public will have every right to feel cheated. But architects won’t be the only ones to blame. The real architects of the World Trade Center’s 16 acres have been politicians, real estate developers, transportation bureaucrats, even the police. It’s only when architects and city planners join forces with powerful political and business leaders, as Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett did with their influential 1909 “Plan of Chicago,” that they can truly reshape our world.

GH: There is a lot of architectural “noise” within the profession–the proliferation of imagery, theory, websites, books, conferences–but is there enough noise in the public realm? Is there enough cross-over from the profession and academic discipline into the social arena and should there be? Frank Gehry recently mentioned that something like 98% of buildings are not done by architects. Are the architects not reaching out in the right ways? Or does it take a visionary leader like Mayor Daley to help maintain an architectural consciousness in the public realm–so the public will want to reach for the architects? Do you think we need something like an “Architect Laureate” to promote architecture at the national level?

BK: We don’t need an Architect Laureate. What we really need is a better intellectual infrastructure, one that continually thrusts architecture and its impact on the public realm into the public conversation. By that, I mean more writing about architecture in the popular press and the blogosphere, more radio and television programs, more lectures, and more tours. You visit Chicago and what do you do? You take a boat tour down the Chicago River, glide by the Wrigley Building and other great skyscrapers, and are instantly indoctrinated in the notion that architecture and urban planning can make an enormous difference in a city’s quality of life. It’s true, of course, that Daley’s leadership has been essential in promoting design’s importance. But don’t ignore bottom-up initiatives in favor of those that come from the top down. We need both if we are going to demand—and get—better design.

GH: One of the themes I noticed running through your new book is a concern not just for Chicago but for cities in general, their citizens and how architecture impacts them. Is it fair to say this is the role of the critic, to be the consciousness, the defender of the city and its people–protecting them from bad architecture? Do you think the role of the critic has changed in the last few decades?

BK: If you’re not fighting for better architecture, then why bother writing at all? I learned that lesson from that great street fighter in a bow tie, Allan Temko, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic. Back in the 1960s, Temko would pen a critique lambasting an awful bridge design for the San Francisco Bay area. Then he would write an anonymous editorial, praising his own critique with words to this effect: “Temko was brilliant. We need a better bridge!” Now that’s crusading journalism! Obviously, you can’t play by those rules today. Yet the need to defend the city against design mediocrity and to insist on high standards hasn’t changed. Now you just do it on the Web as well as in print. Still, you have to be realistic: A critic can set the public agenda, but he or she cannot enact that agenda. Nor should critics have that much power. Ultimately, you are arguing for a set of values and standards that enable readers to judge for themselves whether the city is changing for the better or the worse.

GH: Post-9/11 there was talk about the end of the skyscraper. The rest of the world seems to be embracing them. Is there still a place for them in American cities? I recently read your piece on the death of Calatrava’s Spire. What are they going to do with that hole? There are also fantastic proposals for vertical farms and other “green” skyscrapers. Do you think these are feasible or is this just another example of architecture dreaming in ways far removed from social and economic reality?

BK: Of course there’s still a place for skyscrapers in American cities. We simply have too many of them. Here’s a mind-blowing statistic: In the 10 years ending in 2008, Chicago developers started or completed nearly 200 high-rises. That’s more than twice as many high-rises as in all of Milwaukee. For decades, the skyscraper was synonymous with the tall office building, but this building boom was largely about residential towers, the Chicago Spire being the supreme American example. What’s going to happen to that hole? I’ve gotten some wonderful suggestions from readers: 1) Throw all of Illinois’ corrupt pols in there and fill it with cement; 2) Turn it into the world’s largest compost heap; or 3) Make it the future home of the Obama presidential library since it’s shaped like the letter “O.” In all likelihood, it will just sit there for a few years, until a new developer figures out how to use the Spire’s foundations for a new (and much smaller) tower. As for green skyscrapers, they are entirely feasible. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago and two of its former architects, Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, have designed a soon-to-open Chinese skyscraper with a series of integrated sustainable features, such as slots for wind turbines that will generate the tower’s power. Buildings like this aren’t fantasies. They’re the future. It’s a rather delicious irony, by the way, that this green skyscraper, the Pearl River Tower, will be the headquarters of a Chinese tobacco company.

GH: Your book is titled, Terror and Wonder. Is there too much terror and reaction to terror and not enough wonder in architecture? As you noted in your book, there has been an increase in security planning and this is having an impact on cities and public spaces.

BK: The self-inflicted damage from our over-reaction to the terrorist threat has been particularly lamentable. We’ve seen clumsy or overwrought security measures make life miserable at our airports and drain vitality from our public spaces, like the lifeless stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. Washington is the worst example of this trend. Ugly and often-unnecessary security barriers of all sorts have multiplied wildly there, like the brooms in that famous scene from “Fantasia.” At the same time, we’ve seen a profusion of iconic cultural buildings and public spaces as cities sought to duplicate the “Bilbao effect” of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Chicago’s Millennium Park, with its wildly popular interactive sculptures, is a good example. So it’s been a time of extreme oscillation between repressive security measures and teeming public spaces. One might say that the recession has given us a much-needed chance to cool off and ponder what we’ve done, but the enormous number of unemployed architects—reportedly 40 percent—is no blessing. It’s truncating careers, creating a lost generation of architects.

GH: I thought you ended the book wonderfully by contrasting the violence of 9/11 with the long-term neglect of America’s infrastructure and public buildings. Two sets of ruins brought about by different means. What is your current view of recent Obama administration movement in terms of infrastructure–and those solar panels on the White House? And should we kill off iconic buildings or do we still need them? Do we need icons of a different sort?

BK: I admire that Obama is addressing the nation’s enormous infrastructure backlog, but I’m not impressed with the results, at least not so far. Too much of what’s been done through the stimulus package has been remedial rather than transformative. We’re repaving roads rather than building anything that possesses the aesthetic grandeur or community-shaping power of the New Deal’s great public works. High-speed rail could meet this standard, but it’s a long way off. As for iconic buildings, we’ll always need them. But what we really ought to be worrying about is the architectural quality of our “background buildings,” the everyday structures that do far more than iconic “foreground” buildings to shape our metropolitan areas. Perhaps, too, we need a new type of icon, one that gives us sustainability as well as architectural spectacle. In the end, I think, what we require is a new mind set, one which grasps afresh that architecture isn’t just about aesthetics. It’s a social art, the art with which we live.

The Indicator

The Indicator

About this author
Cite: Guy Horton. "The Indicator: A Critic’s Terror and Wonder" 22 Oct 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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