Thursday, February 25, 2010

A critic with a passion for architecture

CHICAGO/ARCHITECTURE. Blair Kamin greets me in the lobby of the Tribune Tower on 435 North Michigan Avenue. This is one Chicago’s many landmark buildings, not a bad place to work in for an architecture critic.
The neo-Gothic tower was built to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Chicago Tribune, the city’s leading newspaper, in 1922. An international architecture competition was held to secure that the building would be “the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world”.
Remember, this is Chicago, not a city for modest ambitions.
Kamin, who has won a Pulitzer Prize and many other awards, has written about architecture in the Tribune since 1992. Ten years ago he wrote the commentaries for a book about the Tribune Tower, but as we part later I realize that I didn’t ask him much about his own place of work.
There were simply too many other things to talk about.
We sit down for lunch in a nearby restaurant overlooking the Chicago River for a talk on architecture in this exciting city. Wherever we look, there are buildings to talk about.
“Have you had a chance to see the Trump Tower yet?”, asks Kamin and points in the direction behind my back.
The 92-story skyscraper, called Trump International Hotel & Tower (right), was completed last year and stands as the second tallest building in the United States, after Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) further up the river.
Developer Donald Trump had meant his Chicago skyscraper to be the tallest in the world, but plans were scaled down after the September 11-attacs in 2001.
It still stands as a giant in a city full of tall buildings and Blair Kamin is beginning to like parts of it after initial fears for what it would do to the cityscape. The reflective, silver-blue exterior changes constantly depending on your location and the weather. It brings the sky down to the city streets.
“In this city architecture stands for bold things and strong statements”, says Kamin, who studied environmental design at Yale before eventually choosing to write about architecture instead of being an architect.
“I felt I could do a more meaningful contribution by writing about it. I really have a passion for architecture, and I enjoy it more this way.”
Anybody interested in Chicago or architecture in general can follow Kamin in his Tribune blog Cityscapes.
“My job is to make people aware of the built environment. And there is a great interest for this in Chicago. People here are proud of the city and its architecture.”
On the other side of the restaurant where we are sitting, Chicago’s next spectacular landmark was supposed to be under way. Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has designed the 610 meters (2,000 feet) tall Chicago Spire, a 150-story twisting skyscraper.
But it remains just a hole in the ground, due to the recession.
“I’m not sure if it ever will be built”, says Kamin.
There is still enough to see in Chicago, and the city had a great year for architecture last year. Several exceptional buildings were completed and the city celebrated the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham’s historic Plan of Chicago with many events throughout the year.
Burnham set the tone for Chicago with his famous words “Make no little plans” (even though there is no historic evidence that he actually said that).
“Burnham’s plan was a bold vision. But big plans have to be realized one step at a time, in a series of small moves. That’s how cities work. Chicago has become good at that lately”, says Kamin, and points out at the pleasant new Chicago Riverwalk (left) as an example of all the positive things that have happened.
The Millennium Park, just a few blocks away from where we are sitting, is another example. There will be more about that in a later report.
Kamin also talks about an incredible building boom in Chicago that has now come to a halt with the recession. Some 160-170 high-rise buildings have shot up in the past ten years, adding to the forest of skyscrapers that make Chicago so special.
When I ask Kamin to list a few of his favourite buildings in Chicago, new and old, one of those new high-rises comes up first.
Aqua, the 82-story residential and residential that I wrote about in my first report on Chicago architecture, has been praised by Kamin for its “spectacular sculptural presence”.
Another favourite is the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, opened in May 2009. Designed by Renzo Piano, this beautiful building is a pleasure to enjoy both from the outside and the inside, where you get a nice view of the skyline through the thin curtains (right).
As a third new favourite, Kamin picks the Millennium Park as a whole, just across the street from the Modern Wing.
What about the older architectural gems of Chicago?
For anyone who follows his blog, it’s no surprise that the old department store Carson Pirie Scott & Co on State Street is on Kamin’s top-three list. Architect Louis Sullivan’s fantastic ornaments in cast-iron makes it a building to see up close.
Frank Lloyd Wrights classic Robie House in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago is another of the city’s must-see attractions, and also on Kamin’s list.
His third choice in the “old” category surprises me. John Hancock Center is of course one of the most famous parts of the Chicago skyline, but is it really to be seen as old?
“It’s 40 years old!”, exclaims Kamin with a smile.
I forgot. That’s of course old in Chicago.

This is the second in a series of reports on architecture in Chicago.

Renzo Piano's Modern Wing on a rainy Chicago night.

Blair Kamin checking out attractions near his Tribune Tower office.

The urban site makes Robie House unusal among the "Prairie School" residences.