Kai Ryssdal: We’ve had economic booms and busts in the past decade. We’ve had floods and terrorist attacks. We have had creation and destruction in all of their extremes. Those forces are reflected by the buildings around us.
Today in our series “The Art of Money” — what artists and others see when they look at the economy — a conversation with Blair Kamin. He’s the architecture critic at the Chicago Tribune. He’s got a new book out about the last decade in American buildings. It’s called “Terror and Wonder.”
And when we spoke, I asked him how the past 10 years have changed the way we interact with those buildings.
Blair Kamin: When we went through airports, we now face a corral-like atmosphere, that was kind of like going through the old Chicago stockyards. We might go to a downtown and we would see a spectacular museum, a spectacle work of architecture. We would now see new green buildings, with planted roofs and energy saving materials. We started to concentrate — after Katrina and the collapse of the levies in New Orleans — on our infrastructure.
Ryssdal: You make the point that it was defined, this decade in architecture, it was defined on the vertical access by the World Trade Center’s coming down and this enormous tower — the Burj of Dubai, the Burj Khalifa, I guess now properly — over in Dubai. And also on the horizontal by the devastation of Katrina. I mean, it goes all ways.
Kamin: The violence that Katrina and the terrorist attacks did was not only to cities and to people. But those disasters also did violence to our internal gyroscopes. I mean, we look at buildings and cities as kind of anchors, places of permanence amid the chaos of daily life. So it was incredibly unnerving, I think, to see those anchors, the Trade Center and the city of New Orleans succumb to that very chaos.
Ryssdal: You know, for all that Sept. 11 brought to architecture and how we interact with buildings, there were predictions that nobody would build anymore big buildings, that we were down with skyscrapers — and that clearly, if you look at the Burj Khalifa over in Dubai at 2,700 feet whatever it is — that hasn’t happened.
Kamin: Well, there were a lot of predictions made right after 9/11 that proved untrue. The skyscraper certainly didn’t succumb to the terrorist attacks. In fact, the world went on the greatest skyscraper building boom in its history — with more skyscrapers, with more formal invention being built than in any time in human history.
The larger point here is that this building boom in large cities gave us what I call “urbanization without urbanity.” Where there was an incredible surge of building, but there was also a cityscape that wasn’t necessarily humane.
Ryssdal: There was — at least in the early part of this decade that you write about — there was an exuberance out there — and it’s exemplified best in your book and also in my daily commute practically — by a building that’s like two blocks from me right now, the Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry. I mean, that’s an amazing structure. Are we done with those though, now that the recession’s here?
Kamin: I think the age of the “wow” building, if it isn’t over, is pretty much on the way out. It’s not just that people don’t have the money to do flashy, showy buildings. It’s that in the middle of an economic downturn, they don’t want to look flashy or showy. The culture, the atmosphere, the climate has changed. And that may not necessarily be a bad thing.
Ryssdal: You end this collection of essays and columns on a note of policy and President Obama’s efforts at infrastructure and you say you’re spreading asphalt and concrete like so much peanut butter across the country. Are we going to get a Hoover Dam out of this, like they did in the Depression?
Kamin: Not so far. We may get high-speed rail, but that’s a long way down the road. So far, the stimulus, on the one hand, it is addressing the back log of infrastructure that we let deteriorate. On the other hand, it is just spreading out billions of dollars into non-transformative infrastructure work, like the rebuilding of roads.
Ryssdal: You call it the “architecture of pragmatism.”
Kamin: Right. The sad thing is that, you know, we began this period with ruins, ruins that were created by act of terrorism. And we’re ending it with ruins, but these are the ruins of our infrastructure, our roads, our bridges, our architecture. As Louis Sullivan said, the great Chicago architect, “Our architecture reflects us as truly as a mirror.” And we saw that not only in our architecture, but in our public works as well.
Ryssdal: Blair Kamin’s book about architecture in our society and in our economy is called “Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age.” Blair, thanks a lot.
Kamin: Kai, thank you.