Last Friday, Blair Kamin ended his 28-year run as architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune. I have known and admired Kamin for almost two decades. His writing on architecture and the built environment was sharp and lucid; he was not afraid to offend the less than delicate sensibilities of those in power. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1999, Kamin was an activist critic, very much in the tradition of Ada Louise Huxtable and Allan Temko. Late last week, I reached out to Kamin to talk about the role of critics, and the end of his singular run.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
BK: Blair Kamin
So is today your last day? Was I reading that correctly on social media?
Yes. Today is my last day.
Wow. You must be a jumble of emotions.
I’m actually not. I’m pretty happy and deeply gratified.
And what prompted the move?
The immediate prompt was a buyout offer from the Tribune. But I had been thinking about this for a while. About a year ago, I decided that I wanted to leave, and thought that I would stick around long enough to review the major culminating buildings of the post–Great Recession building boom, like Jeannie Gang’s St. Regis, Chicago. I was able to do that, then the buyout offer came along, and so I took it.
Interesting timing, going out in the middle of a pandemic?
Oh, yeah. It’s wonderful timing in the sense that on the very day that my last column appeared, the banner headline in the Chicago Tribune was “Trump Impeached Again.” I couldn’t have asked for better.
There’s a symmetry to that, given your shared history. You’ve been one of the singular voices in architecture for almost 30 years. I feel like there was a central spine to your criticism. Maybe you can articulate that, and what you felt your role as a critic was.
Those are two separate questions. The role is multifaceted. And I have to say, I understand the role better than ever now on my last day, because of the torrent of responses I’ve gotten from readers. My primary role was to be an educator, to open people’s eyes, and raise their expectations for architecture and urban design. I’ve gotten numerable emails and social media notes from readers, saying, “Thank you so much. I moved to Chicago. I didn’t really know that much about architecture. But you really enabled me to see things I’d never seen before.” “When visitors came to town, I knew what to tell them about.” “I would take your articles in my backpack and go out and look at buildings.” Those kinds of messages were extremely gratifying.
The other role, as a critic, was to act as a watchdog. And that means holding architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and the people who often are the real architects of the urban environment—politicians, real estate developers, and bureaucrats—holding all of them accountable. It’s mind-blowing that people have said, “Thank you, you helped avoid some disasters. You improved buildings on our skyline.” It all comes back to our beloved Ada Louise Huxtable, who said that the critic’s role was to link the public and the public realm. That’s what this has been all about, and it’s why I feel happy and gratified going out. All those stories made a difference for people.
I got to know Chicago when my daughter went to college there. She still lives there. So I started visiting for longer periods and walking the streets, and I was just blown away. Chicago must have per capita the best collection of really good buildings, of all styles. It’s amazing. And I do think that the architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune has a unique place in that firmament, and I didn’t understand until I actually walked around. Did you feel that weight when you started at 28 years ago? Were you aware of it?
Absolutely. From the first piece that I wrote, the three words that always were in my head were: the Chicago imperative. It was the imperative to raise the bar, not only for our architects, but for my own writing. The architectural culture here is very rich. It’s not just because of the buildings. It’s because of the range of institutions here: The Graham Foundation, Society of Architectural Historians, Chicago Architecture Center, Council on Tall Buildings. And so the Tribune’s architecture critic is an important part of that ecosystem and was before I showed up. Paul Gapp was the one who established the role starting in 1974. The architect Tom Beebe often referred to what he called the building community of architects, developers, real estate people. And part of that is due to the unique geography of Chicago, the fact that there’s a single clear center, the Loop, as opposed to, say, Manhattan, which has two centers of commerce. But it’s also part of the city’s history and the incredible pride that people take in buildings and building well.
The Tribune architecture critic’s role has been to sustain that conversation, that dialogue, on a regular basis. And it really encompasses all aspects of the built environment, from parks to public housing, to skyscrapers, you name it. That’s what I’ve tried to do. Sustain that conversation over 28 years.
What did you write about before you became the architecture critic?
I was a reporter at the Tribune and covered two big suburbs at first, Aurora and Naperville. I was the suburban affairs writer, which was the regional beat. Then I became a culture reporter covering arts organizations. And during this time, I was being mentored by Paul Gapp, who would ensure that I had assignments that helped me grow and establish my presence as an architectural writer. He let me write a magazine cover story about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana Thomas House.
We all know about turf wars and how those work in journalism. To do that was such an extremely generous thing to do.
Absolutely. And that generosity was present from the beginning. I was working at the Des Moines Register. This was in about 1985 or ’86. And I was being interviewed by Richard Ciccone, the managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, a tough guy, political reporter, short sleeves, who says, “Hey, what do you want to do in five years, kid?” “Well, you know, Mr. Ciccone, sir, someday, I’d like to be the architecture critic here.” “Well, you’re probably wondering how old Paul Gapp is.” “It’s crossed my mind.” So he picks up the phone, punches in a few numbers, “Personnel, this is Ciccone, how old is Gapp?”
Fifty-eight, he learns, then he calls up Gapp, who he knew well enough to kid around with him: “Hey, Gapp, this is Ciccone, get in here. I got this guy in here who wants your job.” That’s how I met Paul. And he came, totally secure, a huge grin on his face. Ciccone showed him one of my stories from Des Moines. And Gapp goes, “Kid, that’s a good lead.” Here was a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic, who is gracious, generous, and totally unthreatened by this newcomer. What can I say?
When you talked about the legacy of the job, I was always conscious that you always brought up Gapp’s name. Now I know the reason.
He was a great guy. And we share a lot. We both crossed swords with Trump, Paul in a much more serious way than me. He famously wrote that Trump’s proposal for a 150-story tower at the tip of lower Manhattan was “the silliest thing anyone could ever inflict on New York, the Guinness book of records, and architecture.” Trump sued him and the Tribune for big bucks, claiming that he had torpedoed the project. A federal judge ruled in Paul and the Tribune’s favor. My battles over the Trump sign by comparison were lower stakes. Trump hurled verbal insults at me, but he didn’t sue me.
Anyway, Paul and I also served as a counterweight in the broader architectural conversation to the New York Times. The Times critics often deem fashions of the day, stars of the day. And I think in Chicago, there’s a different attitude, something that’s more about enduring quality than fleeting fashion. We’re a little bit closer to the day-to-day activity than the view from 30,000 feet that you often get from the paper of record.
That was especially true when you took over. I guess it would be ’92 or ’93. That’s when Herbert Muschamp started, give or take a few years, and Herbert just loved to follow the stars. He seemed to cover the same 20 international jet-setting architects. And that did set a lot of the dialogue, not in a particularly healthy way. You were one of the counterweights to that.
My mantra was: You judge the architecture, not the architect. You don’t write about just starchitecture, but all facets of the built environment. And certainly the series on the Chicago lakefront was a part of that effort. It was a very counterintuitive project. Most people consider the Chicago lakefront this great public space, a legacy of Daniel Burnham. How could anyone criticize it? Well, I went out and biked around the lakefront, and from that close contact—seeing what it was actually like, as opposed to its reputation—I knew there was a story about the chasm carved by racism between the North Lakefront, with its abundance of amenities and parkland, and the South Lakefront, which lacked those things in large part because the adjacent neighborhoods were mostly poor and Black. In the 22 years since that series ran, there’s been a big change. The hundreds of millions of dollars in public spending have brought new pedestrian bridges, expanded parkland, a fishing pier, marina, and other amenities to the South Lakefront end.
Whether you’re a mayor or an architecture critic, it does help to have a long run. Because after I’d completed the series, it wasn’t the end of the story. It took like 20 years of nudging: “Hey, build those damn pedestrian bridges, what are you waiting for?” I needed to be around to see that stuff through.
You were undeniably a watchdog for the lakefront, against unscrupulous developers, all of that. Are you worried that that role is slipping as local news struggles?
Absolutely. My last column said that it’s imperative that a new critic pick up where Paul and I left off. If there isn’t an architecture critic at the Tribune, schlock developers and hack architects will welcome the lack of scrutiny. So you’re going to ask: Am I going to be replaced? And my answer is, I don’t know.
I asked the same question of Chris Hawthorne when he left the Los Angeles Times, and Chris’s answer was more or less, “I don’t know, I think so.” And it turned out that they did replace him about a year later.
They replaced him two years later. But I’m really glad that they did. (That’s so L.A., to take two years to replace an architecture critic.) But they did eventually replace Chris with Carolina Miranda, which is great. But I don’t know what will happen here. What I can say is that I’m in conversation with people who are interested in ensuring that the role of the architecture critic and the coverage can go on.
Could you conceivably have a role in advising them on who to pick?
Absolutely. I’m happy to advise. It’s not up to me to pick a successor. But I’m more than happy to advise either the Tribune or another news organization, if it wants to continue the coverage. I’m on record on that score. I’m hopeful that the coverage will continue in the Tribune or another media outlet. Hopeful that someone else will pick up the baton.
I think it’s important for Chicago. And what are your immediate plans, besides biking more?
Biking more, walking more, being able to sleep at night. That’s very high on my list. It’s funny. Just being downtown and looking at buildings, seeing construction cranes, I would always feel like that’s my responsibility. If I didn’t write about it, no one else was going to write about it.
Are you a menace behind the wheel, when you’re looking at buildings? My kids mock me for it: “Wait a minute, let’s slow down here.”
Oh yeah. It’s a running family joke that I am a dangerous driver, when I’m out looking at buildings. But I drive slower than your grandmother, so I’ve never had any accidents. But seriously, I really do look forward to having an extended break, because it’s been stressful.
And you were cranking out at least two or three pieces a week, pretty high volume.
I talked to Paul Goldberger, who’s been a mentor ever since I took his class in architectural criticism, and he said that this is a phase where you can be freer than when you’re a staff critic. You can pick and choose subjects, and the timing of your engagement. There’s something liberating about that.
Featured image via Chicago Parent.