[PODCAST] Senior Project Ep. 3: A conversation with a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist


Mimi Geller

The plaque honoring Blair Kamin for his Pulitzer Prize.

From RubicOnline Podcasts, this is Senior Project: A Podcast.

Documenting the struggles, triumphs, and realities of the senior project experience at St. Paul Academy and Summit School.

I’m your host, Mimi Geller, and I will be producing this podcast as a way for students to understand senior project. I will interview the people I meet along the way and impart my advice as I learn more about myself, others, and possible careers I would like to pursue over the course of May.

Today I had the honor to interview Chicago Tribune Architecture Critic Blair Kamin, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for his work, specifically for his documentation of the development of Chicago’s lakefront in 1998. This was my career awareness interview, which the senior project advisors describe as an opportunity “To give you an introduction to a career. To give you experience in meeting and interviewing a stranger. To provide you with some information about how people fall into their professions.”

The following is my interview with Mr. Kamin. Enjoy.

MG: Do you ever look at a building and not have an opinion?

BK: That’s a good question. Sure. If I’m just walking around, off duty, I might not have an opinion. But generally, when I’m on duty, I have an opinion.

Generally, when I’m on duty, I have an opinion.”

— Blair Kamin

MG: Is it hard to be off duty?

BK: Really good question. It’s funny, Barbara, my wife, will joke around about how it’s dangerous to drive with me because I’m always turning my head one way or another.

MG: You are from New Jersey, I guess I’m just wondering, you’re close to New York City which is also another American architectural hub, but why Chicago? Why here?

BK: Well, first of all let me talk about New Jersey. It’s interesting. I grew up in a suburb called Fair Haven, it’s about 40 miles southwest of New York. A lot of architecture critics are from New Jersey.

MG: Really?

BK: Paul Goldberger, who was an architecture critic at the New York Times and the New Yorker. Benjamin Forgey, a Washington Post architecture critic. I think that when you’re living in New Jersey and New York is over the river and it’s kind of like Oz, the Emerald City, you have a desire to go in and discover its treasures. So that might be a part of it. Why Chicago? Well, Chicago is a great American architectural city and if you do what I do, it’s one of the great places to be an architecture critic because of its heritage and because of its ongoing tradition of producing innovative architecture, urban planning and landscaping architecture.

MG: Since there aren’t that many of you, as in well-known architecture critics. What’s it like to be one of the few and not really have a precedent to what you do?

People want to know how power, taste, and other factors are shaping the city they live in.”

— Blair Kamin

BK: I mean, there are precedents. There have been architecture critics at American newspapers since the early 1960s, and even before then there were architecture critics, they just weren’t full time on staff people. What I think you’re asking is, what’s it like being one of a very small group who have this job at an American newspaper. Honestly, I don’t really think about that, I just do my job. In Chicago, look out the window. You can see there are all these construction cranes. It’s a story that, as a journalist, you cover. So, if there’s a new building, people want to know what you think of it. Or if there’s a plan for a new building, people want to ask the same thing. People want to know how power, taste, and other factors are shaping the city they live in. So, I really don’t think about it so much as being a small number. On the other hand, I mean, I do to some extent, because it’s really important for me to demonstrate why the job is crucial to readers. My editors at the Tribune are utterly convinced it’s crucial, but it’s also important to show other newspapers why it’s really so important. And the most important thing is to show readers every day why architecture matters.

MG: Who do you report to?

BK: I report directly to the Tribune Business Editor, Mary Ellen Podmolik. That’s unusual because you would think I would be in the Metro section where I once was based or the Arts section where I once was based. The Tribune reorganized last year and put together a team of reporters and critics called City at Work. The team approach is to combine the real estate writer with the transportation writer with the architecture critic because what we do is all interrelated, so it makes sense to have us working for the same editor. Mary Ellen used to cover real estate, so she’s very familiar with the real estate scene, commercial construction and things like that. She’s a very good editor, so it’s actually worked very well.

The most important thing is to show readers every day why architecture matters.”

— Blair Kamin

MG: Can you talk a little about journalism in your family?

BK: Sure. My dad, which it sounds like you know, edited a newspaper in New Jersey. It was a suburban daily and Sunday newspaper, it had about a 35,000 circulation. I really grew up in a newspaper family and that was really interesting. My dad would be on the phone at night with his editors deciding what would go on the front page. He was also the president of the newspaper. He didn’t own the newspaper, but he ran the business side. So we would go to publishers conventions as well as editors conventions and one thing I’ll always remember is when President Nixon was under fire for the Watergate scandal, he gave a speech to the publishers convention to Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida and he famously said in that speech that “I am not a crook.” So, that was quite a historic occasion to attend. The most important thing really was that my father was deeply involved in his community and really felt a responsibility to inform people in the community, to have a leading voice in terms of advocating for important things like the establishment of a community college or other things like that. It really was a great way to grow up to see how journalism could make a difference in community.

MG: Did you go into college thinking you were going to be a journalist or writer?

BK: I think I probably thought I’d be a journalist. I didn’t really have an exact idea of what I wanted to write about, but maybe politics or something like that. So what really changed for me in college, and you may find this when you take some courses from professors who are really inspiring, […] I took a class in Gothic architecture and literature the second semester of my sophomore year. I had a terrific professor named Joel Upton and he gave very informed and inspiring lectures on the great gothic cathedrals like Notre Dame of Paris, the cathedral that just burned, and others. That really was a life-changing experience because I got really interested in architecture and that sort of set me going on this journey of specializing in writing about architecture.

It really was a great way to grow up to see how journalism could make a difference in community.”

— Blair Kamin

MG: So, before listening to this inspiring professor, was architecture not really there?

BK: It was there. It was funny, my dad’s newspaper actually burned in a Christmas Eve fire in the 1970 or 1971, you can check. It burned down. So, he was responsible for working with architects on a new building, to design a new building. So one of the things we did, interestingly enough, is we toured newspaper plants around the country. One of the places we went, there’s a city in the Midwest, in Columbus, have you ever heard of it?

MG: I’ve heard of the city.

BK: So Columbus is really unique because the business leaders in Columbus thought that they could upgrade their quality of life and make the town more attractive to people by hiring innovative architects. One of the great buildings there was a great newspaper building that was called The Republic, and it was a steel and glass box and it was like one story tall and it was very transparent, it had glass walls. And so you could look into the building from the outside and see the entire process of gathering the news, printing the news, delivering the news and the really exciting thing about that building was that it had a yellow gauss printing press that was sort of a piece of kinetic sculpture. So as you walked by on the street in Columbus, you could actually see this printing press moving and churning out these newspapers which is pretty cool. So that was I was 13. So we worked with and saw all these newspaper plants around the country, my dad worked with an architecture and interior designer so that had something to do with it. My dad was also really interested in what we now call graphic design. He was interested in how a newspaper page was laid out and typography. It’s interesting because in the old days that was referred to as makeup, not rouge of mascara, but makeup was how you made up the newspaper. That played a role, that interesting design.

MG: A quote I found in one of your books that I love, in Why Architecture Matters, you wrote, “we look to the art of architecture to clarify the human condition and express the spirit of the times.” So, what is the spirit of today? And how is that reflected?

There’s a real desire […] for spaces that invite community. ”

— Blair Kamin

BK: Good question. I think there are lots, there are different spirits of these times. Of this time I should say. I mean, on the one hand, I think a lot of architecture has become much more attuned to energy conservation and the need for green buildings. I think too that there’s a desire in the digital age for people to gather and to have face to face contact and a sense of community. You can only have so much community looking at your smartphone. And so, there’s a real desire, I think especially among millennials, for spaces that invite community. You see that in Millenium Park right across the street from us right now, to the designs of office building lobbies where there’s places to sit and meet. It’s a really interesting question, I’m not sure I’m answering it in a way I’m satisfied with.

MG: Have you seen it change, in terms of priorities? You can talk about those changes.

BK: Sure. I mean, you know architecture does reflect cultural attitudes. In the 1980s, you had that sort of trend toward conservatism and a shift away from modern architecture. So you saw a lot of buildings that were covered in stone, that were trying to have a sense of stability and permanence that were heavy rather than transparent, floating like buildings. Like in Minneapolis, a good example would be instead of, like the Norwest Center would be a good example of that. In other words, whereas the IDS Center was a building of glass and transparency, the Norwest Center was a building that looked like it could have been built in the 1920s or 30s. It was covered in stone, it kind of looks like Rockefeller Center with all of its setbacks. What’s interesting is that that was kind of the architecture of the Reagan era and a return to conservative values. And then I think you saw, in the late 90s, a real reaction against that. If you went to, say, the University of Minnesota, and the art building there by Frank Gehry, you’d see a building that celebrated the chaos of everyday life and looked somewhat chaotic with all of its digitally designed forms that were dynamic rather than static and that were metal rather than stone. There was a reaction against that too. More recently, a lot of architecture has become less aggressive visually and quieter. Less, kind of, apt to just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something. I don’t know a good example in Minneapolis of a building that would show this, but you might just have buildings that are modern, but quieter. If you look out the window, if you see that tall building down at the end, I mean that building is relatively simple in its shape. It’s evoking the setbacks of the Willis Tower in Chicago that’s the tallest building. It doesn’t look like it’s an exploding Coke can like some of Frank Gehry’s buildings do. It’s a little calmer.

More recently, a lot of architecture has become less aggressive visually and quieter.”

— Blair Kamin

MG: What are calmer buildings a response to?

BK: Well I think after the Recession, I think there was a real feeling that architecture had become a game of excess and that buildings by some architects like Gehry or Santiago Calatrava were excessive in that they were doing things that were visually dramatic and theatrical, but weren’t necessarily functional or that they were overwrought. I don’t think that’s totally true about all of Frank Gehry’s work, I mean I think his work will stand up quite well. But I think that there was a desire for simpler forms. Not necessarily less expensive forms, but simpler.

MG: Your writing, at least the writing I’ve read of yours, alludes towards a lot of the racial covenants and racial disparities in Chicago that exists between the North and the South. Why is that important to you to bring up in your writing?

BK: Well, it’s important because architecture isn’t just a game. It’s not just an art for the wealthy, the privileged, the people who go to art museums. It’s really an art that shapes how we live every day. If there are great disparities in where money is being spent, and therefore great disparities in the environment where people are afforded by their government in terms of public parks, that’s really important to write about. It’s not something that architects would discuss necessarily, because it doesn’t have a lot to do with style, but it does have a tremendous amount to do with equity. Throughout the world, and invariably in cities, there’s a nice part of town and a not so nice part of town, and the resources are often needed most in the not so nice part of town because that’s where people are living in houses that aren’t fancy and they might have economic struggles and things like that. So, 20 years ago when I wrote the series on the lakefront, I think that’s the series you’re alluding to, it was really important to point out the really severe disparities that existed in Chicago and those disparities really reflected the form of discrimination against African Americans who were poor or lower middle class. What’s satisfying is that in 20 years since that series has been published, the city has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in rectifying imbalance. There’s a new parkland and marina and bridges and beaches and so it’s really made a difference in that part of the shoreline.

It’s really an art that shapes how we live everyday.”

— Blair Kamin

MG: About your lakefront series, and maybe this is or maybe this isn’t, but what is your most career defining moment? Maybe it was that moment and maybe before or maybe after.

BK: Well that’s certainly one of them. That’s certainly was a form of architecture criticism that wasn’t just about buildings, it was about the environment and it was about social and political realities, not just aesthetic ones. And it’s had a long term impact and it’s something that I’ve followed for like 20 something years. Another one, will probably always be the interchange with Trump over the sign he put up on his building here.

MG: When was that?

BK: So that was in 2014, I think. Do you know about that?

MG: Remind me.

BK: That’s okay. You’ve done a really great job of doing background research.

MG: Thank you.

BK: So Trump put up a skyscraper here that finished in 2009, and I gave it a good review, I said it was a good building. Five years later, he put the very large sign with his name on the bottom of the building about 150 feet up.

MG: So that wasn’t originally there?

BK: No. It was allowed in the city law, but it actually wasn’t put in place until five years later. The letters are 20 feet high, they glow at night, they almost as long as half a football field, and they’re near the bottom of the building so they’re really visible and they’re kind of grotesque. His building sits right amid some really beautiful 1920s skyscrapers across the Michigan Avenue bridge. So it isn’t just ugly in it of itself, it wrecks an area, not wrecks, it mars an area as a whole. I wrote a column, I had interviewed him several times and you can look it up. So he said it was going to by like the Hollywood, going to be like a tourist attraction, and to some extent it is, I mean people take pictures of it. It’s also really hated by a lot of people. Rahm, the mayor, even had a law passed saying that people couldn’t build signs like that in the future that were that size. So anyway, it led to a big controversy. He was on the Today show being interviewed and he trashed me on the Today show, he said I was a third-grade architecture critic and that I was a loser, lightweight. Then, John Stewart on the Daily Show did a segment about it. It’s called Signfeud like Seinfeld.

MG: Wow. Another career highlight I guess.

BK: Yeah. I mean, what’s sad is that it kind of foreshadowed the way Trump would slime journalists as he’s been doing. Because he had written notes before, which I still have. Like I would say before his skyscraper was finished, I would say it’s looking good as it’s being constructed. And he would write me notes that said “Blair, you’re the best. Donald.” But then, after I trashed his sign and he called me a third-grade architecture critic.

MG: That actually kind of leads me to my next question. Why do you think journalism is important today?

BK: It’s important for the same reasons it’s always been important. People need to be informed. Powerful people need to be held accountable. And I guess you could say its value has been underscored and magnified by Trump’s lies and distortions and assertion of people like Kellyanne Conway and their alternative version of facts and truth. Digging out facts is one of the most important thing that journalists do, it really informs how a democracy works and citizens can make informed decisions about what’s going on. My job is to make judgments, informed judgments about buildings, urban spaces, and other things. I deal both in the realm of fact, but also in the realm of opinion. Even then, it’s important. Just because I think one of the most important trends in right now is that the world is urbanizing. Whether it’s China, people in China moving from rural villages to urban cities. Or whether it’s people in the United States who are making cities more dense and more concentrated. With people living in such close proximity to another, the quality of the environment matters more and more. It’s really important to have people who can assess, often in advance whether a project is going to cost millions of dollars and may even require taxpayer support, is it worthy or not. It’s really important to have that debate. And critics don’t necessarily have the last word or the only word in the digital age because there’s so many people who can express their opinion because there are so many platforms. But, having the conversation is really important. In other words, sparking that conversation really matters.

People need to be informed.”

— Blair Kamin

MG: So, this one’s a little bit more personal, but I would love to pursue journalism and I guess my question is what is your advice? Specifically, how did you specialize and how did you know how maybe that was a little more helpful instead of just going into something as broad as, say, politics?

BK: Sure. The most important thing is being passionately interested in something. It’s what gives you energy and drive and enables you to work really hard. I think that for you, you’re doing great. You’re doing fantastic. Your questions have been really good. You did your homework. You were prepared and you’re doing great in that. It’s clearly like you’ve done this and I can tell from your resume that you’ve worked for school paper and local paper and that’s great. It’s a craft. That’s the most important thing because you’re learning the craft of how to get information. So that’s really important. The most important thing is finding something you really care about that you love. That sounds so naive and idealistic because that helps you pursue.

MG: I mean, you love architecture and you’re here now. I think it worked out.

BK: Yeah, it did. Another thing that’s really important, and I think you’re doing this, is being conversant in technology and being able to work in different platforms. You may find, you may discover that you could do TV reporting, you could do podcast, you could do radio. But the most important thing is doing it and learning the craft. There are a lot of people who don’t do what you’re doing. You’re definitely on the right road. What you’re doing is really impressive. And another thing is learning. I noticed you’re a volleyball player, captain of the volleyball team. So that’s great too. Because there are things you can learn from sports and other life activities that you can bring into your life and your career and leadership. In sports, I mean, the other team is going to be, they’re going to have a coach and they are going to practicing and doing a lot of the same things that you’re doing. So, how do you get an edge? Part of the edge comes from within. It comes from the drive that you have, from the passion you have for your subject. The willingness to dig deeper, to rewrite the story one more time to make it as perfect as you can. To check all the spelling and to check all the grammar. Because it really takes an enormous effort to achieve excellence and I think you know that from sports. I ran cross country in high school, I wasn’t great or anything, we would always say “run your own race.” And I think that’s a good life lesson because, ultimately, you’re the one running the race. What’s going to drive you? What’s going to give you the energy to excel.

MG: Well, that’s all I have. Thank you so much.

BK: You’re welcome.

MG: It was so nice meeting you.