At the heart of this book, a collection of Kamin's Chicago Tribune articles spanning nearly a decade, is the author's adherence to his "consistent but flexible principles" of Activist Criticism. His critiques are not mere assessments of buildings as works of art; they are convincing arguments that as a whole show us the significant role architecture plays in a city. Far too many urban-dwellers blindly take whatever buildings go up around them and fail to realize how architecture shapes their lives, for better or worse, but Kamin implores us and our civic leaders to be more discerning, demanding worthy projects that will strengthen our cities.
Blair Kamin is not just a great critic with sharp insight: he's a terrific writer whose articles are seasoned with wit and a highly readable eloquence. Upon reading his work, it is no surprise that he won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. It helps to be familiar with Chicago's landmark buildings, but that is not a prerequisite to learning some important lessons. This book is not just pleasure reading for architecture students, but for anyone who cares deeply about the architectural decisions being made in his or her city. By frequently reviewing proposed projects, Kamin goes on the offensive, raising some keen questions that go alarmingly unasked by the developers and politicians involved. This approach, with the resulting influence he wields, has altered the course of events in Chicago many a time (though, sadly, not always). One wishes he had the final approval on all the city's projects before groundbreaking. Architecture, as he says, is the "inescapable art" we all have to live with on a daily basis, and Kamin's activist criticism encourages us to learn from past mistakes in order to form a more livable city.
He makes clear the difference between a building as a structure and a building as part of a living city. While the examples are mainly from Chicago, this book is a must-read for anyone who loves cities.