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Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments

“Activist criticism is based on the idea that architecture effects everyone and therefore should be understandable to everyone,” Blair Kamin writes in Why Architecture Matters. “Activist criticism invites readers to be more than consumers who passively accept the buildings that are handed to them. It bids them, instead, to become citizens who take a leading role in shaping their surroundings.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune critic has taught millions of readers exactly what this approach can do in the decade he has been writing his fiery, intelligent essays on the state of contemporary architecture. Working from the palette of Chicago, America’s foremost architectural city, Kamin also paints on a broad canvas, and in his work he has assessed everything from Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain to the “green skyscraper” as it is developing in Germany to the haunting U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Why Architecture Matters collects the best of Kamin’s columns, including his acclaimed series advocating the intelligent development of Chicago’s lakefront. The columns are organized thematically, providing an accessible and provocative view of architecture in the 1990s, from soaring skyscrapers to vibrant immigrant neighborhoods, troubled public housing projects and sprawling suburbs. Because Chicago serves as a barometer of national design trends, these writings shed new light on American architecture and urbanism during a decade that Kamin labels “The Nervous Nineties”and#8212;a period of unparalleled affluence and underlying anxiety, of soothing retro buildings and provocative new ones that express the frenzied state of modern life. As Kamin demonstrates in his piercing, often witty, critiques, Chicago perfectly represents the era’s contradictions, rediscovering itself as a city but losing its architectural nerve.

An architecture critic’s most important role, Kamin believes, is to articulate standards that help people judge the quality of their surroundings, contrasting the esoteric theory of how buildings and public places are supposed to work with the unpredictable reality of everyday life. Throughout Why Architecture Matters, he pursues the question of how people actually use space, and how architects and planners might better design it to enrich human experience. Architecture matters, Kamin argues, because it simultaneously reflects and affects how we live. “Every building,” he writes, “is a new piece of the evolving metropolis, a new layer of the ever-changing urban collage. This collective work of art forms an unflinching record of who we are and what we do.”


For more than a decade, Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin has been writing fiery, intelligent essays on the state of contemporary architecture. His subjects range from high-rises to highways, parks to public housing, Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry. Why Architecture Matters collects the best of Kamin’s acclaimed columns, offering both a look at America’s foremost architectural city and a taste of Kamin’s penetrating, witty style of critique.

About the Author

Blair Kamin has been the architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune since 1992. He also is a contributing editor of Architectural Record. His work has been recognized with 20 professional awards, including such major honors as the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, the George Polk Award for Criticism and the American Institute of Architects’ Institute Honor for Collaborative Achievement. Kamin also wrote the commentaries for Tribune Tower: American Landmark. He lives in a classic Chicago frame house with his wife, Chicago Tribune writer Barbara Mahany, and their son Willie.

Table of Contents


Part One – The Evolving Metropolis

The Mediocre Mile

The Mayor’s Maypole: Boul Mich Pylon Plan Reason to Hoist Warning Flags

Twice Cursed: Rehabbed Marriott Is Miles and Miles from Magnificent

Faking History: Disney’s Make-Believe Architecture Is Just What Michigan Avenue Doesn’t Need

That Comeback Street

Stately Street: Retro Renovation Puts a Once-Great Shopping Mecca on the Road to Economic and Aesthetic Recovery

An Elevating Station: Avoiding the Tunnel Vision of the Past, the Airy Renovation of the State/Roosevelt Subway Stop Sets a Zesty Standard

Building a Better Block 37: Good Intentions Simply Aren’t Enough for High Stakes State Street Project

Public Works and the Public Realm

Updating the Dark Ages: Daley’s Walled-Neighborhoods Plan Would Do Much to Hurt the City and Little to Stopand#160;Crime

The Bridges of Cook County: Design Enhances Engineering in Citywide Project

Triumphal Arches: Damen Avenue Bridge Is a Modern-Day Beauty


Making the Past a Part of the Future

Tumbling Legacy: Shortsighted Moves by the City Have the Potential to Send Architectural Gems Toppling Like Dominoes

Vertical Triumph: Reliance Building Restoration Is a Vote for Old Glory

Crumbling Icons: Some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Greatest Buildings Are Falling Apart, but the Bigger Question Isand#8212;What Can We Do to Save Them?

Suburbanizing the City

City-Escape: A New, Schlocky Brand of Architecture Promotes a Chicago that Never Was

Populist Playground: Navy Pier Has Shaped Up, but Aesthetics Have Been Shipped Out

The Sky Above, the Dud Below: Developer John Buck Is Skating on Thin Ice When He Compares His North Bridge Project to New York’s Rockefeller Center

Urbanizing the Suburbs

Shopping for an Identity: Renovated Old Orchard Too Much at Once

Losing Yardage: City and Suburbs Worse Off When Homeowners Gobble Up Their Green Space

Suburban Skyline: Arlington Heights Fights Sprawl with Urban Innovations

Part Two -and#160;The Art of Architecture

Sizing Up the Skyscraper

Still Standing Tall: Plain and Simple, Hancock Rules

Reaching for the Sky: After Two Decades, Sears Comes Up Short

Bigger, but Better? New World’s Tallest Design for 7 South Dearborn Leaves Room for Improvement

Inner Beauty: Stunning Atrium Offsets New Skyscraper’s Public Face

Green Giant: Germany’s Commerzbank Is a Breath of Fresh Air for Stale Skyscrapers

Unsung Heroes

The Man with the Plan: Revisiting Daniel H. Burnham, the Architect Who Bent Entire Cities to His Will

Masters of Understatement: Miesian Architects May Get No Respect, but Their Boldly Simply Style Suits Chicago to a T

Weese’s Legacy: Historical Society’s Exhibit Salutes a Consummate Man of the City

Opportunities Lost (and Found) in Chicago

Doing the Wrong Thing Flawlessly: The Arts Club of Chicago Holds on to the Past Instead of Exploring the Future

A Fumbled Chance at Greatness: The Museum of Contemporary Art Tries but Fails to Extend Chicago’s History of Design Triumphs

Structural Damage: Chicago Has Forfeited Its Title as the Nation’s Architectural Capital

A Star Is Reborn: Underappreciated Adler Planetarium Rockets into the Future with Daring New Addition

Architecture with a Capital “A”: Look Elsewhere

Monument to Memory: The Holocaust Museum Isand#160;a Searing Space of Pain and Healing

Star Attraction: The Hayden Sphere Has Landed and It’s Friendly to Earthlings

Welcome to the Future: Frank Gehry’s Stunning New Guggenheim Museum in Spain Is the First Great Building of the Next Century

Berlin’s Leading Edge: Helmut Jahn’s New Sony Center Helps Turn a Wasteland into a Thriving Urban Center that Draws Together East and West

Importing “Starchitects”

Koolhaas’s IIT Campus Center: Success Will Be in the Details

Gehry’s Chicago Band Shell: Outsider Art Is Catalyst for Creativity

Eisenman’s Aronoff Center in Cincinnati: For a Design to Stand the Test of Time, the Building Must Do the Same

Part Three -and#160;Architecture as a Social Art

Places and Catalysts for Gathering

Town Square I: Face Lift Improves Daley Plaza and Maintains Its Special Character

Town Square II: Folk Music School’s New Home Strikes the Right Note

Moo-ving Tale: Cows Broke Down the Fences that Kept Us Apart

Raising and Razing Temples of Sport

Comiskey Park: New Neighbor Not Necessarily New Friend

The Stadium: The End Is Near for Chicago’s Shrine

The United Center: Don’t Take Me Out to the Mall Game

Building a Better Life

A Leap of Creativity: Old St. Pat’s Is New Again

Where Learning’s Fun by Design: Back of the Yards School Is Neighborhood Beacon

Day-Care Package: Tigerman Leads the Way toward a Bootstrap Architecture that Gives Low-Income Kids a Leg Up

Private Housing: Building Boom, Architecture Bust

Strange Neighbors: Bright New Condos Add Vitality to the Cityand#8212;but Something about Them Is Just Not Right

Tall Building Comes Up Short: New Apartment Tower Is a Drag on the Skyline

Public Housing: Sheltered by Design

Housing that Works: Politicians and Bureaucrats Have Been the Real Architects of Public Housing, but It Doesn’t Have to Be that Way

Urban Mosaic’s Lost Piece: Creative Planners Have Discarded the “Tower-in-the-Park” Model that Disconnected Public Housing from Its Surroundings

Building a Sense of Security: Fences, Individual Front Doors, and Porches Create Safe Spaces that Can Free Residents from Being Virtual Prisoners of Drug Dealers and Prostitutes

Myth Must Be Exploded: Stereotyping Ignores Factors that Make High-Rises Livable Buildings or Monumental Eyesores

Part Four -and#160;The Lakefront: Democratic Vistas

Putting the Car in Its Place

Gem in the Making: The New Museum Campus Is Chicago’s Latest Lakefront Jewel, but It Still Needs a Little Polishing

Park Above, Parking Below: A Subterranean Garage Adds Excitement to a Museum and Green Space to the Lakefront

Beauty and the Beach: Three New Castles in the Sand Suit the Lakefront Perfectly

Reinventing the Lakefront

A Flawed Jewel: The Lakefront Needs Help, and the City of Chicago Has a Rare Chance to Remold It for the Twenty-first Centuryand#8212;but Where’s the Vision?

The Great Divide: Carved by Racism, the Chasm between North and South Side Amenities Can Be Bridged, but It Will Take More than a Few Flowers

Grant Park’s Double Life: Jammed and Raucous during Summer Festivals, Empty and Sleepy the Rest of the Year, Our Central Park Needs a Single, Vibrant Personality

A Landmark of Labor: As a Celebration of Industry, the Idled South Works Steel Plant Could Forge a New Link in the Chain of Waterfront Parks and Museums

Striking a Balance: Lincoln Park Is about to Add the Nature Museum to Its Already Full Plate, While the South Lakefront Hungers for Improvements

Big Canvas, Little Plans: Mayer Daley Could Be an Architect for the Shoreline, Not Just a Groundkeeperand#8212;and Now Is the Time to Act



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Blair Kamin
Architecture — Illinois — Chicago.
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