"We now live in a culture of infinite choices," says Chicago Tribune's architecture critic, Blair Kamin. "You go to Home Depot and there are 60 different kinds of floors you can put in your basement, whereas in 1950 you would have had two. A lot of our architecture is like that." Kamin is explaining how the boxy skylight vaults of Steven Holl's sensuous Bloch Building at the historicist Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, consist of myriad customized pieces made possible through digitally enabled design and construction. "Holl's notion of the complementary contrast is a welcome shift from the polarizing contrast, like Chicago's Soldier Field," he says. "This is a project that adds on a new layer, while respecting the past."
As much as Kamin may consider the Bloch to have been among the more significant buildings to open in 2007, he passionately believes that urban issues, low- and middle-income housing, and sustainability need the most attention from critics. He references Chicago projects like John Ronan's Gary Comer Youth Center, Krueck + Sexton's Spertus Institute, and even Santiago Calatrava's unbuilt, 2,000-foot Chicago Spire as important new works that address sustainability by reinforcing the urban realm.
"This spire is a good example of how the culture is changing," he says. "The Sears Tower and the Hancock building were self-consciously dark and foreboding, almost muscular, icons of an industrial America. But now China is the world's manufacturing center. Downtown Chicago is a place not of work, but of play and ideas." For Kamin, Ronan's Youth Center is not about a "wow" factor, but rather spatial flexibility and community understanding. "It's an antidote to the spectacle and its facile solutions," he says. "It's not just someone selling himself and helping a developer sell a brand." Like many critics, Kamin bemoans the success of image-driven, so-called "starchitecture" that many blame on the contemporary media culture. "If [Frank Lloyd] Wright's Wasmuth Portfolio were published today, you'd have kids on the Internet in Dubai reading it," says Kamin. He completely rejects simplistic divisions between what qualifies as global or local architecture.
Chicago, like most American cities, has experienced a glut of new condominium projects. "Most buildings going up are just junk," Kamin says. "You can talk about a resurgence if you just focus on the Perry Street apartments by Richard Meier [in New York], but if you step back, the field is weak." He wonders if the typical condo—a tower on top of a parking-garage podium—isn't a creative trap. "These are the buildings that are killing cities and giving us this problem of density without urbanity," he says.
Kamin surveys the landscape of contemporary American architecture and sees a lot of Modernist projects he considers "one-offs," buildings that visually register within a city but don't always contribute to street life. Exceptions include David Chipperfield's Des Moines Public Library, which Kamin sees as part of an overall strategy of enlivening that city's downtown. "The city is a project that takes generations to realize," he says. "To think that architects alone have the silver bullet that will change a downtown's fate is ridiculous." But Kamin says more architects need to stop getting caught up in style wars and the obsession with sustainable "gadgets"—to borrow the Chicago architect and urbanist Douglas Farr's terminology—that have the tendency to marginalize the profession. "Sustainability and architecture are ultimately about how we are going to live," he says. "You can't ignore the small picture, so, yes, buildings should be green, but the real architects are the planners, politicians, and people who write codes."