Blair Kamin

If the literary critic is a dying breed, the architecture critic is rarer still. The lack of stewards of taste in the commons is unfortunate, given how much higher the stakes can be. After all, it’s not particularly hard to avoid a boring novel, but navigating around an oppressively designed train station might be impossible.

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.

A book called Who is this city for

Who Is the City For?: Architecture, Equity, and the Public Realm in Chicago

By Blair Kamin ’79 
Photographs by Lee Bey 
University of Chicago Press

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.”

Three city skyscrappers and a three-story Victorian home

The book includes many photos. Top two (left to right): The Central Standard Building and Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate. Bottom two (left to right): The St. Regis Chicago, originally Vista Tower. Far right: an exterior view of the Emmett Till house

And for a proud Chicagoan such as he, this is personal. For instance: “The Commission on Chicago Landmarks,” he writes, “often serves as the last line of defense between civilization and … civic barbarity.”

As wealth is further concentrated in the hands of the few, and the skylines of our stratified cities climb ever higher with condo skyscrapers that function mostly as tax havens for billionaires, searching for equity in our architecture can be, to put it lightly, a challenge. But the simultaneous rethinking about who our society has been built to favor shows that the role of the critic is more important than ever. With his work, Kamin holds power to public account. Chicago is lucky to have him manning the watch against civic barbarity.

Mancusi is a novelist and literary critic. He is the author of A Philosophy of Ruin (HarperCollins, 2019).