Triumphs and Failures in Retrospect

Triumphs and Failures in Retrospect

Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age
Blair Kamin
The University of Chicago Press

Blair Kamin has been a salient voice in the field of architecture and urban planning for several decades now. In addition to being The Chicago Tribune’s leading authority on architecture, he is also a contributing editor to Architectural Record and was given the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1999.

His latest book, Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, is a highly informative and accessible survey of the architecture and planning of the past decade, a period indelibly marked not only by the tragedies of 9/11 and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, but also more recent concerns about the importance of environmentally sensitive design practices, as well as renewed concern about our nation’s infrastructure.

In light of these circumstances, Kamin’s recent book highlights the triumphs as well as the inevitable failures of architectural design in the decade following the turn of the millennium. As Kamin argues, the development of design is not a singular trajectory, but a more complex interplay of different political and cultural undercurrents.

Through 51 of his columns from The Chicago Tribune and other relevant publications, Kamin provides his readers with a retrospective look at the diverse developments affecting the nature of contemporary architectural discourse. The author begins with his response to the effect that the loss of the Twin Towers had on New York City’s skyline, and ends with an editorial reflecting on President Obama’s turn to developing our infrastructure by funding transportation systems instead of iconic structures denoting the primacy of Western democracy. Kamin’s collection of editorials convey the changing nature of aesthetics in response to extant socio-political forces.

By looking back at writing from the middle of 2001 until today, Kamin teases out the underlying logic imbued in the birth and destruction of iconic structures in the United States and abroad. Postscripts added to the majority of Kamin’s editorials function as an adhesive that binds this logic together, allowing his writing to be charged with new meaning and relevance in light of the events that exceed the date of each article’s original publication.

Though his writing may pivot around the more historically prominent events in the past decade, he also includes essays that convey the cultural relevancy of such structures as Renzo Piano’s bold Modern Wing addition to the Art Institute of Chicago, and the iconic Rock-N’-Roll McDonald’s in the Near North Side neighborhood of Chicago. He treats these structures as telling artifacts of the values of the culture that espoused them.

For instance, the author describes how after the McDonald’s corporation rejected proposals to redesign its space-aged looking building in Chicago, the company rehabilitated its interior to include Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chairs and other modernist fixtures. These implicate the fast food restaurant with a highly postmodern form of pastiche: it meshes high art and low art to a degree that would send Clement Greenberg into a coma.

Kamin notes the marked impact that the success of Starbucks has had on restaurant franchise aesthetics. These occasional departures from analyzing the monumental inject Kamin’s critique with a deeper, more everyday relevance than one may expect from the onset of his book.

Turning from the decades of excess predating 9/11, we can begin to look at a future of design that accounts for the shifting needs of society. Skeptical of the propensity for environmentalism to be commodified, Kamin nevertheless suggests that green architecture informs a marked change in our culture’s attitude of visual decadence and fiscal responsibility in the aftermath of the economic downturn.

His critique is one that extends beyond the physical facades he analyzes into the broader context of socio-economic activity. Poignant and timely, his survey underscores the importance of thinking critically about design in a time when opulence becomes a liability and natural disasters demand the reorganization of our nation’s fundamental priorities.