The Blair Kamin Interview

Some housekeeping first: if you live on or near Chicago's South Side, you can catch me either today or tomorrow at the library. If you're in the burbs, catch me on Friday at Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock. Meanwhile, I covered The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret for the AV Club and Dexter for the LA Times.

You lucky folks get two interviews this week. Blair Kamin is the architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune, a post he has held since 1992. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Kamin also serves as a contributing editor of Architectural Record magazine. In 2001, the University of Chicago Press published Why Architecture Matters: Lessons from Chicago, a collection of his Chicago Tribune columns and recently published Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, which gathers the best of Kamin's writings from the past decade along with new reflections on an era framed by the destruction of the World Trade Center and the opening of the world's tallest skyscraper.

Which buildings that you've covered have been the most controversial amongst readers or critics and why? Here are three: 1) The renovation of Soldier Field because of its polarizing, Klingon-meets-Parthenon mix of modernism and classicism. 2) Aqua, which most critics and readers adore, but some despise because they think its undulating balconies are a gimmick. 3) The master plan competition for ground zero, which treated us to a vicious political battle between the two finalists, Studio Daniel Libeskind and the team of designers known as THINK.

What's a structure that most people fall all over themselves for that you think is overrated?

Peter Eisenman's Aronoff Center for Design and Art at the University of Cincinnati. It's Deconstructivist decadence: A striking form built with cheap materials. Just four years after its much-hyped 1996 opening, its exterior was already falling apart. For a design to stand the test of time, the building must do the same.

What do you think you'd be doing if you weren't writing about architecture?
Teaching architectural criticism. Or walking down a beach.

What's your favorite building on your commute to work?
If I'm riding the CTA's Purple Line, it's Wrigley Field. If I'm riding Metra, it's 333 W. Wacker. If I'm in the car on Lake Shore Drive, it's the John Hancock Center.

What's an example of a building that you've been in that's gorgeous from the outside but a flop in the inside?
Daniel Libeskind's Denver Art Museum addition is a striking piece of architectural sculpture, but leaves a lot to be desired functionally. Its splaying walls forced the museum's curators to add flat surfaces for hanging paintings. That's awfully self-indulgent.

What are the keys to making architecture writing accessible to all readers and not just experts?
For starters, writing in English and not archi-babble. Second, hooking readers in the first paragraph and letting them know why they should care. Third, communicating ideas vividly, especially through phrases that crystallize a concept. You want readers to know exactly where you stand.

How did the cover of your most recent book get chosen? Were there any buildings that almost made the cover that didn't?
Isaac Tobin, the book's graphic designer, selected the cover shot of the Burj Khalifa, and it turned out be an excellent choice. There's something striking and eerie about that photo. It doesn't literally communicate "terror and wonder," but it does give you a soaring marvel while setting an apprehensive mood. We did ponder putting Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate on the cover, but the Burj is one of the chronological bookends of the story and this is an arresting image of it. Lastly, the photo symbolized that this book is not solely about Chicago.

I was taking a drive up Sheridan Road this weekend and was astounded and disappointed by how generic and unattractive a lot of the new houses are that are going up on the North Shore. Why is it apparently so hard to build a mansion without making it look tacky?
In the beginning of the 20th Century, great architects like David Adler and Howard Van Doren Shaw endowed the North Shore with impressive yet understated mansions. Now developers and owners use hacks, and the results are predictably overwrought. The root of the problem can be traced back to our architecture schools: Instead of teaching students to hate traditional design, they should be teaching them to do it well.

Which films or TV shows do you think best showed off Chicago's architecture?
"The Untouchables," "The Dark Knight," and "The Blues Brothers." I love those police cars crashing through the huge glass windows of the Richard J. Daley Center.

What are some of your favorite cities for appreciating architecture merely for pleasure, as a tourist (and not as a critic, if that's possible).
New Orleans and San Francisco, principally because they are cities of great urban ensembles rather than drop-dead architectural icons. I'll never forget driving through the emptied-out New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Edward Lifson had a small public feud with you regarding destruction of a Mies van der Rohe building. Have you been in many other architecture feuds?
A feud is a bitter, continuous hostility. Edward and I did not have a feud. We had an honest disagreement and our relationship remains friendly. Have I had other honest disagreements, especially with architects whose work I've panned? Of course. It goes with the territory. Invariably, we kiss and make up, especially if they have another building I'm going to review.

Before you became an architecture critic but while you worked for an architecture firm, were there any assumptions or biases that you held about critics that you realized weren't true once you got into criticism? Yes. I naively assumed that the most august architectural critics at American newspapers didn't have to fight internal battles at their newspapers against other journalists who were shilling for real estate interests. Wrong.

You and your wife are both writers: how much do you rely on each other for input?

I rely on my wife, Chicago Tribune writer Barbara Mahany, far more than she relies on me. She can write circles around me. Plus, she's a better listener.

Here's one of the silliest questions I've ever asked but I can't resist: if you were to dance to architecture, what kind of dance would it be?
It all depends upon the building, of course. If you were dancing to the Chrysler Building, it would be a Jazz Age foxtrot. Mies' Crown Hall would demand something far more stately. What really matters, though, is how buildings dance, or converse, with each other. That's what gives us the poetry of city life.

My husband wanted to ask if you this question: do you have any advice on how people who are afraid of heights can learn to appreciate skyscrapers?
They definitely should not start by going out onto the 80-floor balcony at Aqua. It's a long, long way down from there.

How does it feel to be the 266th person interviewed for
It feels great. Your questions were probing and thought-provoking. I enjoyed our virtual conversation. Good luck to number 267.