The detractor and the Donald


In Terror and Wonder, Pulitzer Prize–winning Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin assembled his most memorable writing from the past decade, as well as some polemical observations on the changing context of the built environment. Among them are two that have taken on a new life in the past couple of weeks: “The Donald’s Dud: Trump’s Skyscraper, Shortened by the Post-9/11 Fear of Heights, Reaches Only for Mediocrity” and “A Skyscraper of Many Faces: In Trump’s Context-Driven Chicago Skyscraper, Beauty Is in the Eye—and the Vantage Point—of the Beholder.” The first piece decries the original design, leaving little room for ambivalence; the other considers the finished construction, and all in all, mostly lauds its structure.

Fast forward. Trump’s skyscraper has now been branded unequivocally as part of Trump’s real estate empire, in twenty-foot-tall block letters that spell out his eponym. Kamin unleashed some sharp criticism of the sign in Chicago Tribune column last week, pointing the blame at city government for allowing this particular type of self-aggrandizement to continue due to obscure politicking:

“It’s a lack of sophisticated design guidelines as well as the teeth to enforce them. Trump’s sign isn’t the only offender — it’s just the most egregious — in a city where skyline branding has run amok.”

The response? Well, first:

It happens to be great for Chicago, because I have the hottest brand in the world,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal

Then the mayor’s office weighed in:

“The mayor thinks the sign is awful,” Bill McCaffrey, a mayoral spokesman, told the Tribune on Wednesday. “It’s in very poor taste and scars what is otherwise an architecturally accomplished building.”

More came from Kamin:

“Whatever the outcome in the Trump-Emanuel faceoff, Chicago needs to take the opposite tack, discouraging signs along its riverfront lest more Trump-style incursions defile what promises to be a great public space.”

Things escalated on Twitter, where Trump has long been known to broadcast his many opinions. Then Kamin was invited to appear on the Today Show, followed by a live call-in from Trump. It should be noted that Kamin’s three columns for the Tribune (here, here, and here) covering Trump’s skyscraper and the foibles of its branding are as prescient, intelligent, and thorough as the rest of his body of work, for which again, he won a Pulitzer Prize. That didn’t stop Trump from trying to dismiss him.

Here’s a direct quote from Trump’s phone call:

“This was started by a third-rate architectural critic for the Chicago Tribune, who I thought got fired. He was gone for a long period of time. Most people thought he got fired. All of a sudden he re-emerges, and to get a little publicity, he started this campaign.”

Some last words? Kamin is of course still at the Tribune. During that “long period of time,” he was busy at Harvard University, where he served as a 2012–13 fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. (See above: Pulitzer.)