After announcing his departure from the Chicago Tribune on Jan. 8, the Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic Blair Kamin, Hon. AIA, reflects on his tenure, Chicago architecture, and his favorite projects with ARCHITECT contributing editor Edward Keegan.
On Jan. 8, the Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic Blair Kamin announced via Twitter that he was leaving the Chicago Tribune. Kamin has held the position since 1992, after joining the newspaper in 1987. ARCHITECT contributing editor Edward Keegan, AIA, spoke with him during his final week on the job.
Keegan: The last 10 months of your tenure were during the COVID-19 pandemic. When was the last time you sat at your Tribune desk? Though construction was declared an “essential service,” did it change your work?
Kamin: My work changed a lot. I was based at home, not at my desk in the old Prudential Building, where the Tribune has been since it moved out of Tribune Tower in 2018. It’s much quieter at home than in a newsroom, which made it easier to think and write well. But the conflation of workplace and home is challenging, especially when your home office is right next to your bedroom. While trying to fall asleep, I would rewrite paragraphs in my head, and then I would start thinking: “Why wait until morning to put things down? I might forget.” So, I would get out of bed at midnight, trudge into my office, turn on the lights, put my fingers on the keyboard, and start typing.
How did your work evolve over 28 years? How did the role as the Tribune architecture critic change from that of your predecessor, Paul Gapp, Hon. AIA, to you in 1992, and to today?
I hope I got better at what I did, that the writing and the observations got sharper. That’s for you and others to judge. In response to the second question, the Tribune critic’s role expanded, both geographically and in terms of subject matter. Chicago architects were doing significant work overseas so the paper sent me to China, Dubai, (United Arab Emirates), and Germany. At the same time, I sought to broaden Paul Gapp’s already-strong emphasis on urban design issues by writing about subjects like landscape architecture and the need for better low-income housing. In addition, the role became more public—more multiplatformed, if you will. Besides writing for the Tribune, I discussed architecture on TV and radio, on Facebook and Twitter, and in lectures and panels. If you want to make architecture a part of the public conversation, you have to go where the people are.
What were the most important issues you tackled?
In retrospect, it’s clear that I sought to focus the public’s attention on the three “P’s”: preservation, progressive architecture, and public realm.
Regarding preservation, it was essential to prevent a repeat of the tragic, utterly misguided demolitions of Pennsylvania Station (in New York) and the Chicago Stock Exchange Building in the 1960s and 1970s. Aged buildings make time visible, like layers of geologic strata. As Jane Jacobs wrote, they foster economic diversity, though gentrification makes that less true today. At best, these buildings provide high standards for future construction, raising expectations and a city’s collective architectural IQ.