Blair Kamin is a Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic from a town blessed with some of the best buildings in the world. He writes for The Chicago Tribune, passing unflinching near-daily judgments on the great designs of our time. He’s got a new book out called Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, composed of 51 columns he’s written since 9/11. We talked to him recently about what it means to be a critic today.
What makes a good critic?
Someone who loves the art, and can come with passion and wit to it. Ada Louise Huxtable is fearless, and not just funny but witty. She’s able to crystallize, with distillations like the “Lollipop Building.” They’re distillations that delight, that create pleasure. It’s the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.
There’s fearlessness too – an ability to shape and influence the debate, and not waiting until it’s too late. It’s a matter of sticking your neck out and doing it early before decisions are reached that are very important.
Who are you writing to with your column?
I don’t write down, but try to raise standards up. To communicate intelligently is essential – to bring intelligence to the lay person, and to command the respect of the profession. It’s often achieved with the simile or the metaphor. You’ve got to get people to taste the difference between the bad and the good. I think the genius of Frank Gehry is his ability to communicate with a down-home, streetwise panache of Columbo, like a rumpled Peter Falk – you know, "the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park is like a bouquet of flowers…”
Why choose to critique mostly the monumental buildings, rather than the smaller ones?
I do smaller scale stuff, like a green supermarket, but I typically don’t do single-family residential. In general, the bigger projects have a way of grabbing people’s attention. The question that comes up is: Why would anyone care? And if you can’t make people care, you’re wasting your time. The real key is not the size, but the idea behind the building. On the other hand, I teach at North Central College, and I take students to the Farnsworth House for a quiet, spiritual moment together. There’s a lot more power in that than in a big building.
Why would anyone care about architecture?
Because they realize on a gut level that it makes a difference in everyday life, like the food they eat, the air they breathe or the books they read. They get viscerally how architects, designers and developers give pleasure, or banality, or worse.
My job is to try to articulate the reasons they react in the way they do. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes you have to grab them by the scruff of the neck to get them to pay attention and make them care.
I’m not an anthropologist. I’m interested in how architecture hits you in the gut, not just the brain. Different people experience architecture in different ways. I want to interpret how they might experience a building – how it might impact them emotionally and physically. I feel very much on solid ground when describing emotions and feelings, a sense of well-being and experience with a place.
What about the dizzying array of online tools that allow anyone to be a critic, even with comments to posts?
Comments are double-edged. The fact is that even critics have blind spots, and there might be a person who found something you missed. Ideally, this is a conversation where the reader can talk back. But on the other hand, there are those bringing in invective, and worse, anonymous invective, or trashing competitors.
I’m in the thick of it, and my job is to deal with it in the most intelligent, compelling and articulate way I can. You know, I get criticized – “ He moved to the suburbs, what does he know about the city?” But I lived in the city for 15 years, and I still work in it every day.
Following your September 2009 piece for Dwell, Brick by Brick, there were a number of comments, some of them negative, about neighbors and by neighbors regarding the house you covered. What’s your take on personal attacks publicly posted as comments?
I don't allow personal attacks posted as comments, but I do think that criticism of design, even harsh criticism, is fair game. In the story, I alluded to the fact that the Brick Weave House was not a house for everybody. I was aware that it was an idiosyncratic house; it certainly doesn't face the street in a conventional way. Some people object to that and their voices should be heard.
So would you filter out the negative comments, or not?
On my blog, I filter out the inappropriate negative comments, those that are personal in nature. The invective doesn’t serve to advance the conversation. The Internet is a Wild West, with no rules. Ideally, you moderate the comments. The key is that there are no personal attacks, but ideas or buildings or different. It’s a new marketplace, but there are rules. It needs to be a civilized place – we need to keep it as civilized as possible.