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Terror and Wonder – A collection of criticism by Blair Kamin

[BOOKS IN BRIEF] The first decade of the new millennium has been a turbulent one for the architectural profession, as this book of collected criticism details, writes Rakesh Ramchurn

The terrorist attacks on New York in September 2001 forced security to the top of the agenda and led to skyscrapers falling briefly out of fashion, with many developments scrapped or reduced in size. Further attacks in Madrid and London reinforced the conviction that urban planning had to be approached with terrorism in mind, while natural disasters such as the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 put architects centre stage as urban centres had to be rebuilt.

Ground Zero, New York in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks

Ground Zero, New York in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks

But the decade was also one of iconic architecture and of roaming starchitects creating a new host of world-class buildings, helped by a buoyant economy in the middle of the decade. The skyscraper was soon back in vogue, with the most dazzling structures springing up in China and the Middle East. Events came full circle in 2008 when the collapse of the property market in the US heralded the global economic downturn which dealt another blow to the construction industry. The decade was crowned with irony in 2010 when Dubai opened Burj Khalifa, the current ‘tallest-building-in-the-world’, to celebratory fireworks and fanfare at the height of the global recession.

Burj Khalifa, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 2010, UAE (Picture: neekoh.fi)

Burj Khalifa, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 2010, UAE (Picture: neekoh.fi)

Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s Pullitzer-Prize winning architecture critic, has written throughout this period and Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age is a collection of his articles over the past 10 years.

Kamin’s most interesting articles are those which deal with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York. Ground Zero has become such hallowed territory that it is a shock to read Kamin’s words just six days after the collapse of the World Trade Centre, when he writes: ‘In truth, almost nobody loved the twin towers… [which] were bland rather than bold, almost mute despite their chest-thumping height.’ He goes on to say, in the same prescient article, that as New York was the world’s financial capital, devoting the site solely to a memorial would ‘permanently disrupt the flow of commerce, aggravating the damage the terrorists have already done.’

World Trade Centre Memorial, New York (Picture: Ana Carina Lauriano)

World Trade Centre Memorial, New York (Picture: Ana Carina Lauriano)

Articles on the metamorphosis of the plans for Ground Zero start off with praise for Daniel Libeskind’s original proposal, critiqued in December 2002, as a ‘brilliant work of urban design’ that balanced a memorial for the dead with a contribution to a living city. But by July 2005 praise had been replaced with disappointment as the final compromise, battered by criticism, security concerns and the need to serve both the market and the public realm, diluted the ‘grand promise’ of the site.

Kamin also analyses the effects that the ‘fortressing’ of cities since September 11 has had on urban centres, where bollards and Jersey barriers have made streets more foreboding and access to government buildings has been restricted. While having an impact on a city’s aesthetics, this new ‘architecture of fear’ has also had a negative effect on democracy he argues, creating distance between elected bodies and the people they represent. Although Kamin focuses on public spaces in Washington and Chicago, there are clear parallels with the silent fortressing of the City of London and Westminster since the decade began.

Jersey barriers have been springing up in both Washington and London

Jersey barriers have been springing up in both Washington and London

Other essays which appraise new developments in Chicago or across the US by many of the world’s most prominent architects provide more straightforward architectural criticism, while sustainability and historical preservation provide other interesting challenges to 21st century building design.

Aqua Tower, Studio Gang Architects, completed 2009 (Picture: gshowman)

Aqua Tower, Chicago by Studio Gang Architects, completed 2009 (Picture: gshowman)

The book’s main drawback for UK readers is that it may be too US-focused - the only building the author examines outside his homeland is Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Articles are accompanied by grainy, black and white images which don’t do Kamin’s colourful criticism much justice, making it hard to visualise buildings you are not already familiar with.

However, 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.

Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age
Blair Kamin
University of Chicago Press
Paperback, 320 pages

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