Monday, September 11, 2006

The Trib's Blair Kamin takes on architecture after 9-11

The Arts and Entertainment Section of yesterday's Sunday Chicago Tribune is largely devoted to What Price Security? Architecture in an anxious age, a series of features by architecture critic Blair Kamin with photos by E. Jason Wambsgans on the effect of 9-11 on nation's skyscrapers and airports, and on Washington, D.C. (today's edition of the invaluable ArchNewsNow newsletter also contains a great cross section of articles on architecture after 9-11.)

If you can, pick up a print copy of the section. The internet version that you can access here at first gives the impression the Tribune is finally getting the web. It opens up to a slide show of compelling images, leading to a main menu screen that includes a video of Blair Kaminn introducing the series. But Kamin's talking head is the only video in the series, all the photos are in black and white, many of the key graphics are presented as Acrobat files rather than html, and all of the illustrations that amplify the stories are stripped from the web versions of the articles, although there's plenty of room for such incongruous sidebar photo teasers as "best bartender 06' and "They're sizzling: New Chicago clubs and bars." The autopilot design, in this context, is more than a little tasteless.

Getting on to the content, Kamin provides a great analysis of where we find ourselves today. His portrait of a Washington, D.C. locked down from both potential terrorists and its citizens is grim and frightening. He shows how knee-jerk - and wrong - reaction to the tragedy has been by quoting a Crain's Chicago Business article from October, 2001 that pontificated that new skyscrapers would be put on hold for at least a decade. Our cities have been transformed into a landscape of bollards and barriers, conveniently ignoring the fact that Timothy McVeigh didn't have to drive into the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City to bring the structure down - he simply parked his explosives-laden truck across the street. Yet we cling to these things, less because they are effective, than because they look effective.

In talking about the planters around the John Hancock building, and Helmut Jahn's new open designs at O'Hare airport, and Norman Foster's dazzling new Hearst Tower in New York, Kamin shows how security and good design don't have to be mutually exclusive.

"We cannot design a world that makes us 100 percent safe," says Kamin. "Invulnerability is an illusion. We need a vision that is at once tough-minded and humanistic. That means assessing potential threats realistically, not emotionally. And it means designing defenses not just against terrorism, but for cities, which form the human habitat."

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