Blair Kamin is leaving the Chicago Tribune after 33 years

So Long

Blair Kamin is leaving the Chicago Tribune after 33 years

(Erol Ahmed/Unsplash)

It’s been an extraordinary run. On Friday, January 8, Blair Kamin announced that he was leaving the Chicago Tribune after 33 years at the paper, 28 of them spent as its architecture critic.

Kamin announced on Twitter that he would be taking a buyout from the Tribune (owned by Tribune Publishing) and leaving the outlet where he had extensively covered Chicago’s transformation over his tenure. Kamin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism in 1999 for his body of work documenting of the Chicago lakefront area, which to this day is still undergoing an expansive evolution.

In his own words, Kamin is ready for some downtime. “What will I do next? I have no idea. After decades of stressful deadlines and rewriting paragraphs in my head at midnight, I’m ready for an extended break — and many long bike rides along Chicago’s lakefront.”

Still, just because Kamin is taking a break doesn’t mean that he’s stopped thinking about the past, present, and future of Chicago’s built environment, and the tough questions his successor will have to deal with. (And it remains to be seen if they’ll draw the same level of animosity from current President Donald Trump, who remained in Kamin’s crosshairs for decades and responded accordingly.)

Blair Kamin
(Provided by Blair Kamin)

When asked about through lines in his work over the years, Kamin said that “I’ve often thought that those through lines involve three ‘P’s: preservation, progressive architecture, and planning/public realm, an essential subset of which has been protecting (and enhancing) Chicago’s lakefront.”

“Sometimes, as in the writings on the Lucas Museum and Soldier Field, the imperative to protect the lakefront overrides the preference for progressive architecture. Social equity is a significant through-line, too, as illustrated by the lakefront piece I’ve excerpted [below]:”

In a six-piece series on Chicago’s lakefront (the same series cited in his Pulitzer win), Kamin plainly laid bare why architecture matters; it bridges and divides communities, often literally, separating the haves from the have-nots along stark racial lines. As Kamin wrote in “The Great Divide: A critical assessment of the problems and promise of Chicago’s shoreline” in 1998:

“Nothing is more shameful about the Chicago lakefront than the fact that is really two lakefronts — One for those who are black and poor, and another for everybody else. Nothing is more important to the lakefront’s future — and perhaps the city’s — than redressing this historic imbalance… When Daniel Burnham said the lakefront belongs to the people, he meant all the people, not just some of them.”

Postscript: The Chicago Park District in 1998 commissioned a comprehensive plan for the south lakefront’s Jackson and Washington Parks and pledged to start another plan, for the south lakefront’s Burnham Park, in 1999. The Burnham Park plan led to hundreds of millions of dollars in public spending on expanded parkland, new pedestrian bridges, a marina, fishing pier, and other amenities.

The Tribune’s next architecture critic will have big shoes to fill, but Kamin hopes a fresh voice will replace him:

“It’s essential that a new critic, with a fresh set of ideas, take up where Paul Gapp and I left off,” he wrote on Twitter. “Imagine Chicago without a full-time architecture critic. Schlock developers and hack architects would welcome the lack of scrutiny.”

Gapp, Kamin’s predecessor, was well-lauded in his own right during his 20-year tenure at the Tribune before his death in 1992, winning a Pulitzer for distinguished criticism in 1979 in part for his “architectural tour” series of columns where he took readers through overlooked landmarks and historic sites.

When asked about the big stories his successor will have to tackle, Kamin told AN that Chicago is continuing its rapid growth and that the stories he covered today will continue to require close coverage: “There’s the future of Helmut Jahn’s Thompson Center (I’ve strongly supported adaptive re-use); the next Chicago Architecture Biennial, how (and whether) downtown Chicago will come back to life post-pandemic; and assessing the final design for the Obama Presidential Center, which is expected to break ground this year.”

You can read Kamin’s full Twitter thread for yourself to see his thoughts on his departure and the many well wishes from colleagues, contemporaries, and Tribune readers alike. Below, Kamin has provided excerpts and footnotes from stories during his tenure that he considered exemplary:

On Donald Trump’s release of a design for his Chicago tower, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, December 19, 2001

It’s not the world’s tallest building. But more to the point, it’s no architectural world-beater, either. Actually, I find it hard to say which is more disappointing about Donald Trump’s plan for a bloated blob of a skyscraper on the prime riverfront site now occupied by the Chicago Sun-Times building — the mediocrity of the design or the facile, thumbs-up reviews it’s getting from Mayor Richard M. Daley’s top planners.

Postscript: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill altered and improved the design of Trump Tower, rounding its corners and adding attractive, light-reflecting stainless-steel fins to its exterior. As the post-9/11 fear of heights ebbed, the tower became taller and better proportioned, allowing it to hold its own on the skyline.

On Chicago’s ‘Super Loop,’ by many designers, September 10, 2017

A surge of tall buildings, the vast majority of them housing rental apartments, is creating a densely populated, urban core — call it the Super Loop — that is pushing far beyond the borders of the traditional downtown. But the Super Loop is patently un-super in at least one respect: It lacks a new version of the technological and aesthetic innovations that made Chicago’s reputation as the cradle of modern architecture…. (Most) of the new high-rises are based on tired commercial formulas. They are merely better versions of the exposed-concrete boxes, stacked atop parking garages, that have marred the blocks west of North Michigan Avenue. They make the leap, in other words, from awful to mediocre.

On the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, by Harboe Architects, May 21, 2017

Frank Lloyd Wright was never one to fret about meeting deadlines, sticking to budgets or roofs that leaked. So there is something fitting about the delayed, but altogether triumphant, restoration of Wright’s Unity Temple, the Oak Park landmark that is the finest public building of Wright’s Chicago years and home to one of the most beautiful rooms in America. Instead of finishing on schedule last fall, the $25 million project is wrapping up just in time for the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birthday…It’s as though Wright himself had willed the timing to demonstrate afresh his genius at the very moment when public attention will be riveted on his legacy.

On the urban planning failures of Cityfront Center, by many designers, October 21, 2018

Viewed from the air, it’s a stunning transformation — in just 30 years, a gritty swath of cleared land and surface parking lots has become a glistening new part of Chicago. But people experience cities on the ground, not in the air. Put the 60 acres between Navy Pier and Michigan Avenue under a microscope and what you see is a cityscape of great expectations and half-kept promises…the architecture, with rare exceptions, is mediocre. The public spaces were supposed to be vibrant and interconnected. Instead, they are unfinished, underachieving, largely disjointed and even, in one case, off-limits to the public.

Postscript: The failures of Cityfront Center influenced city planners as they approved plans for Chicago’s next round of mega-projects, The 78 and Lincoln Yards. Planners were at pains to require developers to provide attractive, ample and accessible public space in a timely fashion. The implementation of both projects has been delayed by the pandemic.