For 28 years, Blair Kamin ’79 served as the architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, a post from which he watched waves of change break over the city, as evidenced in its new construction (and demolition). Who Is the City For? collects 55 of his most noteworthy columns from the past 10 years and pairs them with photographs by Kamin’s “former rival” Lee Bey, critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, to offer a picture of the state of Chicago’s cityscape and where it might be headed in the future.
The book, which includes interstitial material to help give a broader shape to the collection, is organized into five parts, with headings such as “Architecture: Are Buildings Good Citizens?” and “Historic Preservation: What Gets Saved and Why?” Throughout are Kamin’s ideas about architecture-as-equity. After all, one need only look at a city’s buildings to be able to determine the areas that have endured historical “discrimination, disinvestment, and deindustrialization,” often broken down along racial lines literally on either side of the train tracks. Equitable architecture should attempt to redress those wrongs and ensure that the public gets a good return on their investment in tax dollars but, perhaps more importantly, on the usage of space and aesthetic concerns going forward.
The subjects of Kamin’s review include edifices of national attention, such as a lesser Trump tower (with a 50-yard-wide sign of the 45th president’s name “as subtle as Godzilla”) and the Obama Presidential Center (“promising, populist, not yet persuasive”), and also smaller projects more interwoven into the street fabric of Chicago, such as the 41st Street Pedestrian Bridge (“bends Chicago toward urban planning justice”) and an Apple flagship store (“thank goodness, doesn’t resemble an oversized laptop”).
All of the pieces are written in the efficient, snappy prose of a newspaperman and would be a good study for anyone who wishes to converse intelligently and persuasively about the state of our public places. And certain pieces read more like investigative journalism. In a chapter about the city’s (subsequently abandoned) plans to demolish the historic Harley Clarke Mansion, Kamin writes, “Evanston taxpayers should not be subject to a bait-and-switch that forces them to cover unanticipated demolition and landscaping costs,” and asks whether the would-be developers are “treating the city’s lakefront as a public trust, or as a private fiefdom.”
Kamin’s taste can be somewhat hard to pigeonhole. He demonstrates a progressive view of the role of architecture, but not at the expense of historical preservation. As the reader learns, often the two forces are aligned but underfunded. Take the preservation of the nearly forgotten childhood home of Emmett Till, which Kamin considers an important part of living history, but the kind of project “often hard to achieve on the South Side, not for a shortage of vision but for a shortage of dollars.”