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Who Is the City For?

Architecture, Equity, and the Public Realm in Chicago

Photography by Lee Bey
A vividly illustrated collaboration between two of Chicago’s most celebrated architecture critics casts a wise and unsparing eye on inequities in the built environment and attempts to rectify them.
From his high-profile battles with Donald Trump to his insightful celebrations of Frank Lloyd Wright and front-page takedowns of Chicago mega-projects like Lincoln Yards, Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic Blair Kamin has long informed and delighted readers with his illuminating commentary. Kamin’s newest collection, Who Is the City For?, does more than gather fifty-five of his most notable Chicago Tribune columns from the past decade: it pairs his words with striking new images by photographer and architecture critic Lee Bey, Kamin’s former rival at the Chicago Sun-Times. Together, they paint a revealing portrait of Chicago that reaches beyond its glamorous downtown and dramatic buildings by renowned architects like Jeanne Gang to its culturally diverse neighborhoods, including modest structures associated with storied figures from the city’s Black history, such as Emmett Till.
At the book’s heart is its expansive approach to a central concept in contemporary political and architectural discourse: equity. Kamin argues for a broad understanding of the term, one that prioritizes both the shared spaces of the public realm and the urgent need to rebuild Black and brown neighborhoods devastated by decades of discrimination and disinvestment.  “At best,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “the public realm can serve as an equalizing force, a democratizing force. It can spread life’s pleasures and confer dignity, irrespective of a person’s race, income, creed, or gender. In doing so, the public realm can promote the social contract — the notion that we are more than our individual selves, that our common humanity is made manifest in common ground.” Yet the reality in Chicago, as Who Is the City For? powerfully demonstrates, often falls painfully short of that ideal.

312 pages | 69 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Architecture: Architecture--Criticism

Chicago and Illinois

Geography: Urban Geography


“Kamin’s work has always caused a stir within the world of architecture and politics, asking challenging questions that have advanced what was possible at the intersection of both worlds. . . . [His new book] is an invitation to think carefully about the significance of public space and the ways in which our city shows its priorities by investing in some areas far more than others.”

Annie Howard, Chicago Architect Magazine

“It is divinely inspired that the spine of former Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin’s new collection of essays is red and bleeds slightly onto the front and back covers. . . The red line of the spine . . . serves as a reminder of the policies, legislation, and rules that have kept Chicago racially and economically separated. In Who Is the City For? Architecture, Equity, and the Public Realm in Chicago, Kamin, with the support of photographs by Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey, probes just who Chicago serves and how the city can be reshaped and reimagined as a space for all its residents.”

Chicago Magazine

"[Who Is the City For?] offers plentiful, incisive, and urbanistic vignettes of Chicago. . . . It will be treasured by urbanophiles and architecture lovers alike. . . . Excellent photographs support the collection. In Kamin’s masterful hand, architectural criticism is about far more than design. It is a civic project: a public conversation
about politics, the public good, and the promise of urban life."


"A collection of 55 Kamin essays from the past decade, with outstanding photographs by Bey. . . . if you really want to understand what we’re missing in architecture criticism today, read (this) new book."

J. Michael Welton, Architects+Artisans

"Chicago is one of the architectural capitals of the world, and in this new collaboration from today’s leading critics in the field, Blair Kamin and Lee Bey lay bare the inequities that are entrenched in our built environment. Stretching beyond the eye-catching skyscrapers of downtown into the rich history of the city’s diverse neighborhoods, Who is the City For? is a necessary and revealing portrait of Chicago with a powerful message on how we can rebuild our public spaces with equity in mind.”

Chicago Review of Books, “12 Must-Read Books of November"

“The essays in Who Is the City For? present Chicago as an analogue for any city and how architecture and urban design have an ability to bolster and transform the lives of individuals and their communities. . . . Coupled with Lee Bey’s striking photographs, Kamin effectively shows how architecture and urban design can reframe our lived environment and experiences. . . . He’s imploring us to do more than look, he’s showing us the power of seeing, examining, and how to ask the right questions.” 

Brock Kingsley, Chicago Review of Books

“For more than thirty years, Kamin’s clearheaded and forceful writing has set the standard for American architectural criticism. With this wide-ranging new collection, he steps into the intersection where design, urbanism, and social justice meet, proving once again that the best architecture writing is about much more than the way buildings look.”

Inga Saffron, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Becoming Philadelphia: How an Old American City Made Itself New Again

“Kamin’s remarkable and eminently readable new collection is fresh evidence that the best architectural criticism is ultimately about people, rather than buildings.”

Jerold S. Kayden, author of Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, Frank Backus Williams Professor of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design

“No one can match Blair Kamin’s sustained scrutiny and deep understanding of Chicago architecture over the last three decades and beyond. In this book, he succeeds splendidly in offering a new collection of his uniformly excellent, interesting, and important writings. Who Is the City For? is compelling reading for anyone interested not just in Chicago, but in significant trends—both good and bad—in contemporary architecture and city life more broadly."

Carl Smith, author of The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City

“The book features striking black-and-white photographs of structures like ‘Cloud Gate’ in Millennium Park. . . (It) reveals how much influence a good architecture critic can have on a city to shape opinion and sound the alarm when something is going wrong.”

Mary Wisniewski | Newcity

"Who Is the City For? collects 55 stories by former Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, focusing on the idea of Chicago as a sort of collective trust—or as Kamin explains, 'our common humanity is made manifest in common ground.’ Cleverly, the book pairs its columns with photos from Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey."

Christopher Borelli | Chicago Tribune

“It’s a great collection of Blair’s columns and also some wonderful photographs from Lee Bey. . . It’s a beautiful book,”

Bob Sirott, WGN Radio

“This is a wonderful book.”

Joan Esposito, host, WCPT 820 AM radio, Chicago

"[The reviews collected here] capture Kamin’s memorable watchdog ethos that had architects fuming or trembling every week."

Chicago Reader

“What do you get when you put two of Chicago’s preeminent architecture critics together? A thought-provoking book about the city’s storied architecture.”

WTTW, "Chicago Tonight"

“These engaging and thought-provoking essays remind us of the importance of architecture critics in the daily city newspaper realm and what we stand to lose as they—like many others in the shrinking world of thoughtful journalism—are phased out by the corporate gulping down of newspapers.”


“A must-have for people who love this city. . . . A real treasure.”

John Williams, WGN Radio

"I feel this is a great book for grounding my burgeoning knowledge of Chicago’s architecture and history, but that it would also serve to heighten the understanding of both for readers already more well-versed. As a bonus, there are so many wonderful photographs throughout the book, most of which were contributed by the incomparable Lee Bey!"

Jacob Zawa, The Book Stall, Winnetka

"The collection demonstrates the powerful perspective that Kamin and Bey bring to bear, reminding readers that all cities deserve the consideration of such insightful voices.”

Edward Keegan, AIA, Architect magazine

“A great documentation of Chicago’s recent architectural history…these short texts offer an excellent starting point from which to understand the specifics of recent Chicago architecture and urbanism, at a point where much of this past is now receding into pre-pandemic history.”

Eric Mumford, Architectural Record

“Useful for those looking to refresh their knowledge and learn about the last decade of architecture in Chicago. . . . [Kamin’s] discourse was often loud and clear enough for architects, city planners, and even Donald Trump to hear and respond to. Architecture criticism at that level is a public service."

Elizabeth Blasius, Constructs (Yale School of Architecture)

“Must-Read. . . . A case for the value of architectural criticism.”

Sydney Shilling, Azure magazine (Toronto)

”The perfect holiday gift for the design-lover in your life.”

Chicago Architecture Center

Table of Contents


Part One: Presidents and Their Legacy Projects: Self-Aggrandizing or Civic-Minded?
Trump Takes Aim at Design and the Design Press
   The Trump Sign, a Poke in the Eye, Mars the Riverfront
   Trump’s Sycophantic, Vitriolic Treatment of Architecture Critics
   How Should Trump Make Federal Architecture Great? By Ignoring the Ideologues Who Speak for Modernism and Classicism

The Obama Presidential Center: No Walk in the Park
   Obama Center Design: Promising, Populist, not Yet Persuasive
   Obama Center’s Plans Won’t Destroy Olmsted’s Park—They Should Be Improved, not Rejected

Part Two: Urban Design: Boom Times for Cities, but Who Benefits?
Urbanization on the March—and on Hold Because of the Pandemic
   China’s Skyscrapers Are Trophies for the Nation and a Lifeline for Chicago Architects—but Growth Has Its Price
   Attacking “Plop Architecture”: There’s a Better, Transit-Oriented Way to Design Our Cities
   The Rise of Chicago’s Super Loop: So Much Building, So Little Architecture
   The Things We Love about City Life—Public Transit, Urban Hustle—Are the Very Things That Put Us at Risk for COVID-19

Public Spaces: A Burst of Innovation, with Mixed Results on Equity
   Maggie Daley Park Is a Seed with Potential to Blossom
   Chicago’s Downtown Riverwalk: A New Phase of the City’s “Second Lakefront” Takes Shape, a Model of Waterfront Urbanity
   The 606, Two Years Later: As Its Landscape Grows, So Do Concerns about Displacement
   Rating Chicago’s Latest wave of Parks and Public Spaces by the Three “E”s: They’re Better on Entertainment and Ecology Than Equity

Transit and Infrastructure: After a Bumpy Start, Solid Advances
   Signs Uglify Our Beautiful Bridges
   First New Loop “L” Station in Twenty Years Creates Curvy Gateway to Millennium Park
   Along the Dan Ryan, an Eye-Grabbing CTA Terminal Reaches beyond the Ordinary
   On Chicago’s South Lakefront, a Curving Pedestrian Bridge over Lake Shore Drive Also Bends Toward Justice
   Chicago’s New “Shared Street” Tilts the Balance in Favor of Pedestrians, Cyclists, and Social Distancing, but It’s Tinkering, not Structural Change

Part Three: Architecture: Are Buildings Good Citizens?
Tall Buildings: Highs and Lows
   150 North Riverside May Look Like It’s Teetering, but There’s a Method to Its Madness
   When Bad Things Happen to a Good Architect: The Saga of 151 North Franklin
   A Celebrated New Yorker’s New Chicago Tower: The Peak of Urban Luxury, not the Height of Skyscraper Style
   The Vista Tower, Now Chicago’s Third-Tallest Building, Brings Stirring Curves and More to a Squared-Off Skyline
   Fifty Years Later, Lake Point Tower Is a Singular Achievement—Let’s Hope It Stays That Way

Flagship Stores: From Fine-Grained to Flashy
   Apple’s New Flagship Store an Understated Gem on the Chicago River
   McDonald’s New Flagship in River North: Not Ketchup Red or Mustard Yellow, but Green
   In Skokie, an Architecturally Arresting Pot Shop Reveals How Marijuana Has Gone Mainstream

Museums: Reacting against, and Reaching beyond, “Starchitecture”
   George Lucas’s Museum Proposal Is Needlessly Massive
   MCA’s Renovation Is No Hostile Takeover. It Reflects How Audiences Interact with Art and Each Other
   The National African American Museum Still Stirs the Soul—and Drops Hints of What to Expect at the Obama Presidential Center

Public Buildings: The Benefits—and Limits—of Good Design
   Chinatown Library Breaks the Cookie-Cutter Mold and Builds Bonds of Community
   A New Boathouse along the Chicago River Transforms the Motion of Rowing into an Instant Landmark
   Chicago Shows How Public Housing and Libraries Can Coexist and Be Visually Striking. Now We Need More of These Creative Combinations
   A Former North Side Public-Housing Project Is Beautifully Remade, but at What Cost?

Part Four: Historic Preservation: What Gets Saved and Why?
   Who Should Determine a Building’s Fate—the Experts, the Community, or the Clout-Heavy?
   Changes Will Erode Foundation of Landmarks Commission
   Evanston Plan to Demolish Harley Clarke Mansion: Public Vision or Hidden Agenda?
   A Plaque on Emmett Till’s House Is Just a First Step. Chicago Can Do a Better Job of Preserving Black History Sites
   The Despised Pilsen Landmark District Is about to Get a Hearing. Here’s How to Save the Treasured Neighborhood

The Struggle to Save—and Better Understand—Buildings of the Recent Past
   As Prentice Comes Down, Stakes Rise on Its Replacement
   Spare Jahn’s Thompson Center from Rauner’s Death Sentence
   The U of C’s Architectural Oddball, by the Designer of the Aon Center, Gets a Vibrant, Energy-Saving Remake
   A Different View of the Masterful Farnsworth House—Hers

Preserving Buildings of the Distant Past: Yesterday’s Designs, Some Viewed as Radical, Are Today’s Classics
   Delayed Restoration of Unity Temple Was Well Worth the Wait
   The Robie House Is Again a Full-Fledged Architectural Symphony
   Union Station Plan on the Wrong Track: All the Grandeur of a Holiday Inn
   With Cubs’ Commercial Excess Mostly in Check, Wrigley Field’s Nearly Complete Multiyear Renovation Is a Hit
   Chicago’s Old Post Office, the Nation’s Largest Reuse Project, Delivers the Goods
   Once Facing the Wrecking Ball, Old Cook County Hospital Reemerges, Handsomely Remade

Part Five: Two Mayors, Two Directions: Who Can Make the City Work for All?
Rahm Emanuel: Retrospective and Climactic Battle
   Emanuel Thought and Built Big, but Progress was Painfully Uneven
   An Incredible Transformation? Not Really. The “Meh” Blocks West of Navy Pier Are a Cautionary Tale for Chicago’s Next Round of Megaprojects
   Improvement or Invasion? Lincoln Yards Plan Is Too Tall and Out of Place. The Mayor and City Council Should Slow It Down, and Press Architects and Developers to Rethink and Redesign

Lori Lightfoot and Maurice Cox: Detroit Prelude, Chicago Blueprint
   Detroit’s Downtown Revival Is Real, but the Road to Recovery Remains Long
   Changing Course: Lightfoot’s Top Planner Will Focus on the City’s “Soul”—Its Neighborhoods, not Just Its Downtown “Heart”
   Time to Stop Planning and Start Building: It’s Crunch Time for Lightfoot’s Drive to Revive South, West Sides

Epilogue: The End of a Journalistic Era—and What Comes Next?
   A Farewell to Tribune Tower and a Shout-out to Its Architects
   Reflecting on Twenty-Eight Years of Reviewing Chicago’s Architectural Wonders and Blunders—and Why Such Coverage Should Continue



Looking back on nearly thirty years of architecture criticism at the Chicago Tribune, I realize that I have borne witness to a dramatic transformation of Chicago, from a declining industrial colossus to a dynamic yet deeply troubled postindustrial powerhouse, whose favored emblem is a jellybean-shaped sculpture of highly polished steel. The mirrorlike surface of that sculpture, officially titled Cloud Gate but widely known as “the Bean,” reflects the striking skyline of the city’s ever-growing downtown, now home to $10 million condominiums, Michelin-starred restaurants, and an elegant promenade that rims the once badly polluted Chicago River. But the Bean does not reflect the reality of a very different Chicago. That Chicago, though not without distinguished buildings and untapped economic potential, is also a place of weed-strewn vacant lots, empty storefronts, and unceasing gun violence. Indeed, Cloud Gate may be the ultimate shiny, distracting object. While the 2020 census revealed that Chicago’s population grew by nearly 2 percent during the previous decade, to 2.7 million, the dramatic disconnect between the two Chicagos prompts the question: Is this a good city, a just city? Absolutely not. Which prompts a second query: Can those responsible for building the city advance the fortunes of neighborhoods devastated by decades of discrimination, disinvestment, and deindustrialization? On that crucial matter, the jury is still out.

This book, my third collection of Tribune columns published by the University of Chicago Press, is loosely framed around a central issue of our time: equity. What can architecture, traditionally the province of the rich and powerful, do to make cities like Chicago more equitable, serving poor, working-, and middle-class people, not just the 1 percent? A related question can be asked of the fields of transportation and urban planning, which in the wrong hands have led to such notorious projects as freeways that divide Black neighborhoods from white ones or sever one part of an impoverished neighborhood from another. The question applies, too, to the field of historic preservation. Whose history gets remembered and whose history is erased, either by bulldozers or by willful ignorance?

In short, who is the city for?

Let me start by clarifying that I take equity to mean fairness or justice in the way people are treated rather than the term’s economic meanings—a share of stock or the value of a piece of property after debts are subtracted. This emphasis on fairness has significant implications for architecture and the built environment. One side of town shouldn’t have bigger, more amenity-packed parks than the other just because it’s inhabited by the wealthy. If anything, the poor parts of a city should have the prime parks, because their residents live in far worse conditions than the rich.
That was among the essential points of my 1998 series of articles examining the problems and promise of Chicago’s greatest public space, its nearly thirty miles of beaches, harbors, and parkland along Lake Michigan. The series, “Reinventing the Lakefront,” documented a shameful disparity in acreage, access, and amenities between shoreline parks bordered by mostly white, affluent neighborhoods on the city’s North Side and those lined by largely Black, poor neighborhoods on the South Side. Since then, city agencies and the Chicago Park District have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the south lakefront, including architecturally ambitious pedestrian bridges and a harbor and marina that welcome parkgoers as well as boats. But any discussion of equity, I argue, should not be limited to apportioning resources fairly or controlling soaring rents.

A wiser alternative, in my view, is to expand and enrich the social meaning of “equity” by borrowing from its economic counterpart, so that, when we use the word, we’re talking about the physical environment that we share. Shared spaces encompass all aspects of the public realm, from sidewalks and streets to transit stations, to public libraries and public housing. Private buildings, be they skyscrapers, flagship stores, or museums, do just as much as, if not more than, public ones to shape the public realm. At best, the public realm can serve as an equalizing force, a democratizing force. It can spread life’s pleasures and confer dignity, irrespective of a person’s race, income, creed, or gender. Shared space suggests shared destiny. Or, to put matters in terms of hard-nosed self-interest rather than empathetic generosity, the recognition that cities are shared ventures—and that the fate of one section of the city is inseparable from another—represents a far more viable long-term strategy than its opposite: containment of the poor, whether in ghettos, public-housing projects, or dysfunctional neighborhoods.

The shootings and thefts that have spread from Chicago’s South and West Sides to the downtown and affluent North Side neighborhoods like Lincoln Park make clear the costs of failing to address the root causes of long-festering problems associated with high concentrations of poverty. No neighborhood is an island, as the shattered glass of North Michigan Avenue storefronts hit by smash-and-grab thieves and the fatal May 2022 shooting of a teenager in Millennium Park near “the Bean” reveal.

To be sure, the notion that Americans can share anything may seem incredibly naive in light of the nation’s deep political and cultural divides, or the way metropolitan areas like Chicago are fractured by chasms of race and class. Indeed, as the columns collected here reveal, the on-the-ground reality in Chicago often falls painfully short of my ideal of urban equity. But the columns also show the power of architecture and urban design to aid the prospects of both communities and individuals.

Revered as the birthplace of modern architecture and for its singular role in the development of modern city planning, Chicago presents a still-relevant stage for analyzing the human impact of the urban drama. Its litany of influential projects spans centuries and has shaped design throughout the world, from the pathbreaking skyscrapers of the 1880s to the triumphant, albeit belated, 2004 opening of Millennium Park. The city’s architecture and urban-design pratfalls, like the demolished public-housing highrises of the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green, are as notorious as its exemplary buildings are glorious. As I wrote in my first collection, quoting the urban historian Perry Duis, Chicago is “the great American exaggeration,” expressing at larger scale—and often in excruciating contrast—design trends evident in smaller cities. It gives us the best of the best and the worst of the worst of American urban life, a role it has reprised of late—heroically, with bold new skyscrapers like Jeanne Gang’s St. Regis Chicago tower, the world’s tallest building designed by a woman, and, tragically, with more than eight hundred homicides in 2021, its highest total in decades. By comparison, New York and Los Angeles, the nation’s two largest cities, had a combined total of about 980 killings in the same year.

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