Terror and Wonder

Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, by Blair Kamin, University of Chicago, €15.00, $19.00, £12.50.

In the postscript to his latest collection of columns and articles, Chicago Tribune architecture critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Blair Kamin quotes skyscraper pioneer Louis Sullivan in observing how “our architecture reflects us, as truly as a mirror.” Bookended by the chaotic collapse of the twin towers and newly-inaugurated President Obama’s stimulus-led plan for a transformation of the American landscape, Terror and Wonder takes the reader on a journey through a tumultuous decade that saw an initial panicked fortress mentality replaced by a post-crash cultural and aesthetic turn towards “sustainability.” Though Kamin pays lip service to international developments – encapsulated in the exuberant excess of the Burj Khalifa soaring a record-breaking 828 meters above Dubai’s desert sands, and the new clique of globetrotting “starchitects” for hire – Terror and Wonder is unashamedly American in its focus. Moreover, the title is to some extent a misnomer. While “the new normalcy” of stringent security measures served to harden public space, and the catastrophic levee failure in New Orleans revealed deadly infrastructural problems, the early part of the decade also saw the unveiling in Chicago of Millennium Park – a wondrous melange of art, architecture and landscaping that breathed new life into an increasingly tired urban realm. Ultimately, Kamin’s interests lie less in the grand remaking of the physical fabric of our cities, and more in this tension between form and function since the advent of Modernism. Terror and Wonder is a fascinating survey of the structures that continue to shape, and be shaped by, the more modest wonders of everyday life.