“Kamin writes with skill and passion about how the inescapable art of architecture impacts our world and lives.”—Wall Street Journal
Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Ageby Blair Kamin
For more than twenty years now, Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune has explored how architecture captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Kamin treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. Terror and Wonder/i>/i>
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For more than twenty years now, Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune has explored how architecture captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Kamin treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. Terror and Wonder gathers the best of Kamin’s writings from the past decade along with new reflections on an era framed by the destruction of the World Trade Center and the opening of the world’s tallest skyscraper.
Assessing ordinary commercial structures as well as head-turning designs by some of the world’s leading architects, Kamin paints a sweeping but finely textured portrait of a tumultuous age torn between the conflicting mandates of architectural spectacle and sustainability. For Kamin, the story of our built environment over the past ten years is, in tangible ways, the story of the decade itself. Terror and Wonder considers how architecture has been central to the main events and crosscurrents in American life since 2001: the devastating and debilitating consequences of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina; the real estate boom and bust; the use of over-the-top cultural designs as engines of civic renewal; new challenges in saving old buildings; the unlikely rise of energy-saving, green architecture; and growing concern over our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
A prominent cast of players—including Santiago Calatrava, Frank Gehry, Helmut Jahn, Daniel Libeskind, Barack Obama, Renzo Piano, and Donald Trump—fills the pages of this eye-opening look at the astounding and extraordinary ways that architecture mirrors our values—and shapes our everyday lives.
“Kamin is a master of ‘activist criticism’. . . . His writing combines sharp aesthetic judgments with an investigative reporter’s instinct for money, power, and the inside story.” —Washington Post Book World
“Kamin’s pieces are worth reading for anyone who loves cities, because he’s so good at conveying how individual buildings are parts of a greater whole.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, thoughtfully and provocatively defines the emotional and cultural dimensions of architecture. He is one of the nation''s leading voices for design that uplifts and enhances life as well as the environment. His new book, Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, assembles some of his best writing from the past ten years.”—The Huffington Post
“Prescient. . . . colourful. . . . Kamin’s criticism is sharp and readable, more so because he places ordinary people before architects, planners or developers in his appraisal of the changes he has witnessed to the urban environment over the last 10 years.”—Rakesh Ramchurn, The Architects’ Journal
“Prescient. . . . colourful. . . . Kamin’s criticism is sharp and readable, more so because he places ordinary people before architects, planners or developers in his appraisal of the changes he has witnessed to the urban environment over the last 10 years.”
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TERROR AND WONDERARCHITECTURE IN A TUMULTUOUS AGE
By BLAIR KAMIN
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE URBAN DRAMA
THE MOST UNFORGETTABLE AND CONSEQUENTIAL ARCHITECTURAL STORIES OF the first decade of the 21st century were not about great feats of construction; they were about spectacular acts of destruction, both natural and man-made. The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina both played out on urban stages and in real time, riveting and unsettling the millions who watched them. This confluence of disasters reset the American agenda, turning the nation's gaze, if only fleetingly, toward its cities.
Before September 11, 2001, urban development concerns had taken a backseat to public fascination with the eye-popping, neo-baroque creations of such architects as Frank Gehry. But 9/11 and Katrina thrust the gritty field of city planning into America's public conversation: What should replace the tangled ruins at ground zero? Should New Orleans be abandoned or rebuilt? How should America implement the "new normalcy" of heightened security? When and how might Americans begin to reclaim their cities?
Amid the shock of disaster, the first task was to articulate the physical and emotional landscape of the moment—and what it portended for the future.
Raising Up a Fallen Sky
THE BEST WAY TO FILL THE CHILLING VOID IN THE LOWER MANHATTAN SKYLINE IS WITH A GREAT NEW URBAN CENTER, NOT A REPRODUCTION OF THE DESTROYED TWIN TOWERS
SEPTEMBER 17, 2001
Imagine if Sears Tower were suddenly, wrenchingly obliterated from the Chicago skyline and there was nothing but blue sky where an enormous black mass of steel and glass once stood. Then you have some idea of what the astonishing disappearance of the World Trade Center means to the New York skyline—and to the American mind.
In truth, almost no one loved the twin towers as they loved the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, the great art deco skyscrapers that exemplify New York's special brand of exuberance and arrogance. Even with the failed flourish of their modern Gothic arches, the twin towers were bland rather than bold, almost mute despite their chest-thumping height. Their scale-less gigantism overwhelmed the grand collection of Lower Manhattan spires that once dazzled the eyes of huddled masses yearning to be free.
But the towers were undeniably landmarks in the most basic sense of that overused but under-considered word. They marked the land. The shiny square boxes with the slice of sky in between compelled our glance as massive minimalist sculptures, neither beautiful nor stirring, but fixed points on the map that were impossible to ignore. They gave us our bearings, a way to orient ourselves. By sheer virtue of their enormous size, they lent coherence to the chaos of modern life. So it seems all the more jarring that they should succumb to that very chaos.
One-hundred-ten-story high-rises are not supposed to turn into pillars of dust and ash, pancaking downward with apocalyptic fury. Yet that is precisely what happened last Tuesday after hijacked jetliners slammed into the towers at 8:45 a.m. and 9:03 a.m., shattering the illusion of permanence once conjured by these man-made monoliths.
When the towers were completed in 1972 and 1973, it was painful to contemplate Lower Manhattan's skyline with them. Today that same skyline seems incomplete—and incomprehensible—without them. The sky where they once stood looks hauntingly empty, a void where just a week ago, tens of thousands of people traded bonds, managed money, wrote law briefs and insurance policies. The absence of the towers speaks louder than their presence ever did.
It would be disturbing enough if an earthquake had caused last week's damage and its thousands of deaths. Yet the fact that the calamity was planned and perpetrated by human beings makes it even more unsettling. Earthquakes can only happen in certain parts of the world. This nightmare could happen anywhere there is a very tall building that symbolizes the global reach of American capitalism—and a jet, filled with fuel, that can stoke an inferno able to melt a skyscraper's structural steel and cause it to collapse.
Now some zealots argue that the best course is to rebuild the twin towers exactly as they were before the attacks to show that Americans have not been intimidated. Others make the case that the World Trade Center site should be exclusively devoted to a memorial, like the tribute in downtown Oklahoma City to the victims of the 1995 terrorist attack on the federal building there. The film critic Roger Ebert even has suggested a grassy public space, perhaps including a cornfield, where two towers of more than 1,360 feet each once rose.
None of these ideas merits a thumbs-up.
Downtown Manhattan is not downtown Oklahoma City. It is, and is almost sure to remain, the world's financial capital. Setting aside a huge plot of land solely for a memorial would permanently disrupt the flow of commerce, aggravating the damage the terrorists already have done. Ebert's dreamy suggestion of a cornfield might work in a Hollywood screenplay, but it is sure to be a non-starter in the capital of capitalism. And it seems even more unrealistic now that Larry Silverstein, the developer who leads the group that purchased the Trade Center's 99-year lease in 1999, has signaled he is committed to rebuilding the complex.
Americans have always mixed down-to-earth practicality with the lofty idealism associated with the Puritans' desire to raise a shining city on a hill. So they should treat this site by marrying the pragmatic and the poetic: build new office towers that include a major memorial in the public plaza that surely will be placed between them. There is no need to mindlessly replicate the original twin towers. Why do that? The World Trade Center's design was terrible to begin with.
It would be far wiser to erect a new commercial center, at once less gigantic than the old one and more in keeping with the Lower Manhattan skyline. That does not mean a cluster of buildings that would literally reproduce the classic skyscrapers of the 1920s. It does mean creatively re interpreting those forms, using the latest technologies and the latest theories of how we can make cities lively.
Amid the deep gloom of this tragedy, it is hard to remember that the core of the American character is soaringly optimistic. A new commercial and civic complex, which vigorously demonstrates that this spirit lives on, would be the most meaningful new landmark—and the best way to fill the skyline void that is among the attack's most chilling legacies.
In the supercharged days after 9/11, when the air was thick with fear, some real estate developers wondered whether builders would ever again commission extremely tall towers—and whether city governments would approve them. "Never before has a world's tallest building been viewed as a liability. And now it is," said Chicago developer J. Paul Beitler, who once tried unsuccessfully to build a record-shattering skyscraper, the Miglin-Beitler Skyneedle, in Chicago's Loop. "Instead of being icons representing man's finest hour and business's highest achievement, they are now being viewed as targets in fanatics' gun sights."
After the crisis passed, however, the world went on a skyscraper-building binge, with China and Dubai leading the way. Upon its completion in 2010, the Burj Khalifa skyscraper (see p. 122) rose to an unprecedented height of 2,717 feet—more than half a mile high, or taller than one of the World Trade Center towers stacked on top of the other. Americans also returned to the sky, a shift symbolized by the 2009 reopening of the crown in the Statue of Liberty, which the authorities closed after the attacks. The tall building, in other words, proved far more resilient than the doomsayers had forecast.
The redevelopment of what soon became known as ground zero would prove far more challenging. That became clear in 2002 when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation unveiled six mediocre redevelopment proposals for the 16-acre site. All included a memorial as well as office and retail space, yet none rose to the level of creativity the occasion demanded. "Six cookie-cutter losers," the Wall Street Journal's architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, branded them. Only in December of 2002 would Daniel Libeskind's captivating ground zero plan emerge (see p. 32), creating a brief moment of promise.
Don't Abandon New Orleans
THE BIG EASY, AN AMERICAN MASTERPIECE, DESERVES TO BE SAVED; ITS REBUILDING SHOULD STRESS SUBSTANCE OVER SHOW
SEPTEMBER 14, 2005
Four words describe the New Orleans that has been socked by Hurricane Katrina: disaster, yes; apocalypse, no.
The horizontal tableau of entire neighborhoods swamped beneath stinking, sewage-infested waters is as stunning as the vertical drama of the collapsing twin towers in New York. Big cities are symbols of human achievement. We do not expect them to be humbled by nature and evacuated any more than we expected terrorists to fly jets into skyscrapers.
But the relentless focus of the media eye on New Orleans' sunken districts and the unprecedented dispersal of its residents obscure the bigger picture: the real issue is not whether to rebuild the Big Easy, but how.
Cities are collective works of art, and New Orleans is one of America's masterpieces—a delectable multicultural gumbo whose value is only more pronounced in a nation where the same stores, banks, and malls make every place feel like every other place.
For that reason alone, the much-hyped "should we rebuild New Orleans?" debate is preposterous. Of course we should save New Orleans. To abandon it would be like Italy abandoning Venice. Besides, anybody who sets foot in this town knows that the great (and not-so-great) symbols of New Orleans don't need to be rebuilt. They're still there.
You could hold a Mardi Gras parade tomorrow in the bone-dry French Quarter. The modern office towers and hotels of the central business district, graceless though they are, remain standing, poised to resume their role as hubs of commerce. Some of the city's extraordinary neighborhoods, such as the Garden District and its white-columned antebellum mansions, came through the storm with little more than downed trees.
There is a difference, the surviving structures make clear, between mass evacuation and mass destruction.
Yet the debate about the future of the city's heavily flooded areas is real, prompted in part by the remarks of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), who generated a brief controversy when he seemed to question whether they should be rebuilt. Hastert quickly said his remarks had been twisted, a wise move.
You don't simply discard cities that are plagued with deadly infrastructure problems. You solve those problems, as Chicago did in 1900 when it reversed the flow of the Chicago River and prevented a recurrence of the typhoid and cholera epidemics that had plagued the city.
It is already a cliché to say that the flood gives New Orleans a chance to turn disaster into opportunity and to transform itself into a truly 21st-century city. But the most progressive rebuilding plan of all may be based on a new interpretation of an old idea: building with respect for nature rather than arrogantly dismissing it.
LAYERS OF HISTORY
To venture into the emptied city is to experience the strange sensation of enjoying its extraordinary collection of everyday buildings while the people who once lived and worked there are gone. It is a stage set without actors, shrouded in an eerie blanket of quiet that is interrupted only by the chop-chop of military helicopters, the roar of Humvees, and the pitiful barking of abandoned dogs swimming through germ-filled waters.
At Pete Fountain's Club in the French Quarter, there is no Dixieland clarinet music wafting out onto Bourbon Street. But the two-story redbrick building and its lacy black-iron railings appear to be in good condition. The same is true throughout the Quarter, which is simply the most prominent example of New Orleans' polyglot architecture. The French, who founded New Orleans in 1718, laid out the district. Then it was rebuilt by the Spanish, who took over in 1763 and put up all that fancy ironwork.
To walk the Quarter is to freshly appreciate how New Orleans prizes oldness in a way that Chicago values newness, and how its architecture is as sensual and playful as Chicago's is beautifully austere. Like San Francisco, New Orleans is not a city of great individual buildings, but a place that derives its charm from harmonious groups of buildings—le tout ensemble, as the French call it. And the buildings are real. The city is no theme park.
New Orleans has a higher percentage of its neighborhoods honored by inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places than any other major city in America. Some of these historic districts clearly have fared better than others, with those on the relatively high ground near the Mississippi River typically enduring far less flood damage than those in the middle of the bowl-shaped city.
Take the Garden District, which begins southwest of downtown and is as distinctly American as the French Quarter is European. Here, in the 19th century, hustling entrepreneurs built monuments to their success, with the mansions ranging in style from understated Greek revival to over-the-top Victorian.
Today the Garden District looks disheveled but not devastated. Katrina walloped some big trees, which are piled up in the boulevard where the streetcar runs. But the buildings along the street—houses, churches, synagogues, and businesses—seem to have suffered no major damage.
In other historic neighborhoods, such as Gentilly Terrace, home to early 20th-century craftsman bungalows and colonial revival homes, the picture is the one you've seen on TV: Homes remain trapped in floodwaters that reek of sewage. A slick of oil runs atop the water's surface. It's hard to imagine these homes escaping a date with the bulldozer.
"Once they've been in water a few days, it's impossible to save a house," acknowledged Patricia Gay, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, a citywide nonprofit preservation advocacy group.
DIFFERENT METHODS, DIFFERENT OUTCOMES
About 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded, so it would be easy to conclude that 80 percent of the city will have to be razed. In reality, the floodwaters rose to different heights in different areas, and some houses were far better equipped to defend themselves than others.
In the post–World War II subdivision of Gentilly Woods, where the one-story tract homes on concrete slabs look like something out of northwest suburban Cook County, the floodwaters could race right in. But in the Carrollton area near the Garden District, where homes were built the old-fashioned way, with raised living areas and crawl spaces beneath, the houses were able to ride above floodwaters that reached three to four feet high, judging by the water lines on some buildings.
The contrast between the prewar and postwar neighborhoods is revealing: time moved forward, but building practices went backward. Postwar builders of subdivisions such as Gentilly Woods undoubtedly advertised their homes as the latest in modern conveniences. But Katrina revealed just how primitive they really are.
How should New Orleans be rebuilt, then? Job one should be to give priority to substance over show. It would be folly for the city's leaders to concentrate their efforts on flashy symbolic events, like holding a scaled-down Mardi Gras, rather than nuts-and-bolts matters such as building better neighborhoods and infrastructure.
New Orleans should strictly enforce its building codes, ensuring that new homes sit higher above the street than the ones they replace. The federal government should bankroll the rebuilding of the eroded coastal marshes and barrier islands that would act as shock absorbers against the jolt of future hurricanes. Without such defenses—and the construction of massive floodgates that would provide another line of defense against hurricane-spawned storm surges—New Orleans will be defenseless.
Looking at the side-by-side pictures of New Orleans—extraordinary devastation paired with miraculous survival—and considering the special place that New Orleans holds among America's cities, it is hard to take seriously the arguments of those who say that spending billions of federal dollars to rebuild the city would be throwing good money after bad. To do so would be the ultimate anti-urban snub—a loss for New Orleans but, more importantly, a loss for the nation.
This is not the time to tell New Orleans to drop dead.
On September 15, 2005, President George W. Bush called for rebuilding the Gulf Coast region, an area that also encompassed the hurricane-devastated Mississippi coastline. "There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again," the president said, speaking before the brightly lit backdrop of St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter. By 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau reported, New Orleans' population had rebounded to 312,000, or 65 percent of its pre-storm total of 484,674. Among those returning to the city were Lower Ninth Ward residents living in single-family homes commissioned by actor Brad Pitt and designed by internationally renowned architects. Pitt optimistically called his post-Katrina rebuilding project "Make It Right."
Excerpted from TERROR AND WONDER by BLAIR KAMIN Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Blair Kamin is the architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune. A graduate of Amherst College and the Yale School of Architecture, he holds honorary degrees from Monmouth University and North Central College, where he is an adjunct professor of art. Kamin is the recipient of more than 30 honors, including the Pulitzer Prize for criticism and the George Polk Award. His books include the critically acclaimed Why Architecture Matters: Lessons from Chicago and Tribune Tower: American Landmark.
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