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Why Architecture Matters

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Why Architecture Matters By Blair Kamin. University of Chicago Press, 2001. 386pp. £24

Blair Kamin is architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune and this book collects some 60 of his columns since 1992, writes Andrew Mead .The Tribune , he points out, remains an exception to the increasing tendency of US newspapers just to treat architecture as real estate.Naturally Chicago itself dominates his writings but not in a parochial sense.'The city and its suburbs are an astonishingly accurate barometer of the fortunes and misfortunes of American architecture and urban planning, 'he says, which the collection substantiates.

Kamin clearly gets a great buzz still from his city but laments its fate during the 1990s, when it 'lost its architectural nerve'and became a place of 'blandness, not boldness'.He claims to practise 'activist criticism'- 'you whack at the offending party with the journalistic equivalent of a two-by-four'.

Kamin's prose is not as pugilistic as this implies but - just as in the 1930s 'Skyline' columns which Lewis Mumford wrote forThe New Yorker - there is the sense of someone critically engaged with the development of a city on a day-to-day basis. It may be only a shopfront, it may be a proposal for the world's tallest building, but Kamin picks it apart, considering what it means for the public realm and what more general tendency it might represent.Postcripts to some pieces bring the story up to date and allow us to judge whether his 'activist' role has had any effect; certainly sometimes it has.

Kamin approves of Mies and of much that Mies'disciples built in Chicago.SOM's John Hancock Tower (pictured left), with its 'blue-collar directness', is on the cover of the book, confirming it as one of his touchstones.'It elevates pragmatism into poetry, 'he says.'This is rational architecture that transcends rationalism.' Why he thinks the Guggenheim Bilbao is 'superbly crafted' remains a mystery.

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