CORRECTION: Michael J. Lewis, in this post, substantially understates the extent of John Silber’s errors and the breadth of the praise Millennium Park received in the national press, as well as misstating Blair Kamin’s position on Silber.
It did not take long for the bouncers at the flashy and exclusive nightclub that is contemporary architecture to show John Silber the door. Silber, the former president of Boston University, has just published Architecture of the Absurd: How ‘Genius’ Disfigured a Practical Art, a heartfelt essay about the state of architecture today, and the visual mayhem wreaked by the cult of the celebrity architect. Already the first snide response has come in and—predictably—it does not so much engage the book’s ideas as condemn the author’s temerity in writing about architecture in the first place.
The review of Blair Kamin, the architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune, is remarkable for its quality of vitriol. For him, Architecture of the Absurd is “just another rant in the culture wars,” written by someone who “isn’t an architect” and who has not even inspected the buildings he reviles, merely “bloviating from afar.” Nor does Silber’s criticism offer anything new: “architecture critics have said it all before.” In the end, Architecture of the Absurd is written off as “more rant than reason.”
Such is the magisterial disdain reserved for outsiders from whom one expects no retribution and whom one can attack with impunity. But is it true that outsiders—those who bloviate from afar—have nothing to offer? What about those who bloviate from within—like, for example, Kamin?
Kamin makes much of a factual error by Silber concerning Chicago’s Millennium Park (Frank Gehry was not its planner, as Silber stated, although he designed its Pritzker Pavilion). Having found this slip, Kamin acts as if one need pay no attention to anything else that Silber says. In fact, Silber looked at Chicago’s new park, with its thicket of eye-catching public sculptures, critically, something that Kamin himself never did. Throughout the long history of that controversial project, Kamin was a dependable cheerleader, praising the park as “a real public space, not a gated fantasyland.”
It’s something of an occupational hazard for critics at municipal newspapers to be civic boosters. But Kamin’s embrace of local pieties blinded him to one of the most intriguing (and disturbing) developments in contemporary architecture. One of the reasons that Millennium Park was built so swiftly was that its planners divided it into a series of discrete features, giving donors the right to choose their own architects and sculptors. Instead of providing a comprehensive aesthetic vision, in effect the park presented, as I wrote at the time, “a series of detached vignettes—in effect, naming opportunities.” The results may indeed be extraordinarily popular, but their broader ramifications are ominous, especially once other cities relinquish aesthetic control to their fund-raising operations.
So long as there are architecture critics like Kamin, who cannot separate aesthetic judgment from civic boosterism, we have all the more need for the fresh outside perspective of an audacious and delightfully independent critic like Silber.