When the estimable Blair Kamin stepped down as architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune in early 2021, it left the city without a daily critic at any of the local news outlets. That sad state of affairs was partially corrected recently, when the Chicago Sun-Times announced that Lee Bey would begin a monthly architecture column. The writer, historian, photographer, and critic brings a wealth of experience to the task: he was architecture critic for the Sun-Times for five years in the late 1990s, served as deputy chief of staff for planning and design in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, directed governmental affairs at SOM, and taught at IIT. His most recent book is Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side. Last week I talked to Bey about the new role, how the city has changed since his last stint as a critic, and the unique importance of architecture to the city.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
LB: Lee Bey
Tell me about how this new role evolved. Chicago is certainly starved for ongoing coverage of architecture.
I guess the discussions have been going on for more than a year. When Chris Fusco was editor of the Sun-Times, we talked about it a bit. When he left, Steve Warmbir became editor, and we talked about it more. This was before the WBEZ/Sun-Times merger. Initially, the idea was that we would get foundations to fund it. Then Covid happened, and we dropped the idea for a while. I’ve been working for the Sun-Times since December of 2019, but I had only come back part-time on the editorial board. This year I was asked to take on a fuller role, and the financial situation improved a bit, and we started talking again about the idea for an architecture column.
I follow your social media feed and had noticed that you’d been sort of sneaking architecture and planning issues into your Sun-Times editorials. Almost laying the groundwork for resurrecting the beat a little bit.
A bit. But even if I had no desire to write about architecture as a beat again, which was the case originally when I returned, architecture and urban planning and all those things are so important in Chicago. Along with the weather, sports, politics, and traffic, there’s architecture, in terms of what people here really care about. So it was bound to fall into the work I did for the editorial board.
This will start as once a month, but I hope it starts to appear more often.
The beat can certainly generate more than one column a month. When I began trying to figure out what my first column was going to be, I had at least seven issues to choose from. So I hope it does become more than once a month, but it’s a good start, if nothing else.
You were the architecture critic at the Sun-Times for a number of years.
From 1996 to 2001.
So now you’re living in a different Chicago. What’s different now? What are you going to cover now that probably wasn’t on your radar 20 years ago?
Oh, yeah. I’m coming back a generation or so later. The Chicago that I covered the first go around was flush with cash, in many respects. Richard M. Daley was in office. There was Millennium Park, Soldier Field. There were these big public projects coming along. There was a lot of building going on in the South Loop, West Loop, River North, Near North Side, loads of stuff to critique, some of it horrible, some of it good. There was a lot of stuff happening.
Now there’s not as much money coming through, in terms of the ability to do public projects. Mayor Lightfoot’s big project so far has been her Invest South/West program, which is neighborhood-based and much needed, and the kind of stuff the city should have been doing all along. That’s where the fight is a little different now. My first piece is gonna be about a downtown site, but I don’t think I’ll be concentrating on downtown and the surrounding areas. The action really has to be in the neighborhoods. I think that an architecture critic, now, has to talk about preservation, housing, neighborhood development, transit, and how all those things come together to make neighborhoods whole.
In the past couple of generations, downtown and the north North Side have prospered, and the South Side has hollowed out, to some extent.
It really has. The equity piece is crucial. During my first stint, I wrote a lot of stories about the need to redevelop and invest in the south and west sides. Now it’s even more urgent. And I mentioned this in my book, Southern Exposure. Gone is the day where we could design Millennium Park, or build the world’s tallest building or the shiniest skyscraper, and say Chicago is doing well. Where the rubber meets the road now is how well we’re doing in these underserved communities.
That’s where the mayor’s Invest South/West program is important. I see a lot of coverage coming from the beat about that. And certainly the Chicago Transit Authority’s plan to extend the Red Line to 130th Street—fine and good. But what kind of neighborhoods are going to be rebuilt along those lines? That’s the question. At one point, 20 years ago, when I was writing about this, there was a feeling that the West Side, because it’s smaller and book-ended by the redeveloping West Loop, and Oak Park to the west, was ripe for this kind of redevelopment. And it didn’t happen. So looking at the West Side becomes a critical thing, too: What’s going on? What should be going on?
I also plan to get back out to suburbia again. I’m concerned about the southern suburbs especially, which have some of the same problems as parts of the South Side. The population isn’t decreasing, but there’s issues of transportation, housing, preservation, and development. The day of the big-box mall being the solution to all of their problems is gone. So what happens to these large sites? There’s a lot to look at.
Let’s talk about climate change, because we are in an era of climate change, that’s undeniable. So what does that mean for a city like Chicago? I think it means interesting things for a city that isn’t coastal, that might see its population rise in the future.
That’s a good question. When I was writing 20 years ago, I wrote off and on about sustainability. But now there’s much more to write about. I’m thinking about the lake shore, for instance, and how climate change has affected the lake shore. The lake turns violent. I remember when I was in college, in 1987, lake levels rose, and it was like, oh my God, this was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of event. And now we’re experiencing this every two or three years. So that’s a huge issue. Also, our rivers. We don’t pay attention to the rivers in Chicago, and how those are impacted by the developments around it, and by the rapidly changing climate.
I’m thrilled that you’re doing this. The city of Chicago has to have an architecture critic, even if it’s just once a month. There’s just something wrong about the world if Chicago doesn’t have an architectural critic at a major news outlet.
I agree. It’s like Hollywood not having a movie industry critic. It’s so important. There’s a sense from some folk that architecture is a kind of rarified elitist beat, and it can certainly be written that way. But there’s a different history in Chicago, with Paul Gapp, Blair Kamin, with myself the first time around, with Bill Newman, an elegant, beautiful writer who covered urban affairs and architecture for the Sun-Times and the Daily News. People don’t talk about Newman anymore, but they really should. There’s a sense here of writing about architecture from the streets, writing about the political and social aspects that shape architecture, writing about it in a way that understands the importance of architecture, in Chicago, as being just as important as the weather, politics, or the Sox and Cubs.
Maybe in no other American city do I get the sense that people, regular people, are clued into architecture, in a way that they’re not in other cities.
That’s true. You see it on social media now, people in Chicago talking about architecture. But I remember, the first go around as an architecture critic, the paper started putting my picture next to my column. People would recognize me, and everyone had an opinion about architecture. And it wasn’t just people popping off. They had considered opinions about it. And not just about whether an individual building was beautiful or ugly, but how the city functioned as an ecosystem, with transit, buildings, and development, all those kinds of things.
Featured image via WTTW.