Tribune Architecture Critic Blair Kamin on His New Book and the North Shore’s Wonders

When Blair Kamin’s not busy being the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, he’s just a regular Wilmette dad.

He drops off his two sons at school, rides the “L” to work and takes walks along the lake with his wife, Tribune writer Barbara Mahany.

And in between raising kids, writing his articles and maintaining the Cityscapes blog, Kamin put together a second anthology of his best writing, reflecting on the last nine years: “Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age.”

The book takes readers through a world of contrasts: from artistic feats to urban disasters, from lively public spaces to heavy security measures, and from the destruction of 9/11 to the completion of the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burg Khalifa in Dubai, earlier this year. Kamin sat down with Make It Better to talk about these contrasts and architecture on the North Shore.

MIB: The book opens with a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright, “There can be no separation between our architecture and our culture. Nor any separation of either from our happiness.” How has architecture affected our happiness in the past nine years?

BK: Two disasters—9/11 and Katrina—did more than destroy buildings. They messed with our internal gyroscopes. We expect buildings to give us a kind of permanence amid the maelstrom of daily life. When they disappear, our internal sense of order does, too.

MIB: Well, now that we’ve covered the unhappiness, what were some of the best, happiness-inducing things you witnessed?

BK: When Santiago Calatrava’s bird-like sun shade went up at the Milwaukee Art Museum, it was a spirit-lifting event. When the Crown Fountain opened in Millennium Park, no one anticipated that it would become this wondrous, raucous water park.

MIB: And what have you disliked?

BK: Some of the new condos and apartment buildings downtown—they look like they were designed by refugees from East Berlin. And I really dislike our infrastructure that’s falling apart. As we were building luxurious private homes, our public spaces were crumbling. The clearest example is the levees in New Orleans.

MIB: What are some examples of great architecture here on the North Shore?

BK: The North Shore has a number of great buildings and a disparate influence on design. Take Crow Island School in Winnetka. It’s a child-focused, village-like cluster, versus schools that are scary-looking monuments. There are hundreds of schools that have followed the Crow model.

The first Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie-style house is on the North Shore—the Ward Willits House in Highland Park. It’s not in Oak Park.

Market Square in Lake Forest is the most civilized shopping center around.

New Metra stations are imitating Glencoe and Kenilworth. They’re gateways to the communities—not just sheds that keep you out of the rain.

Sheridan Road. It’s this beautiful ribbon that connects all these towns. There are no ugly commercial centers. The lake peeks out at various points, those sparkling waters, the sun, the sky …

There are a lot of architects who live here, and architects tend to live good places.

Want more? Blair Kamin will read from his new book at the Book Stall on Nov. 30 at 6:30 p.m.