Book Review: Terror and Wonder

“There can be no separation between our architecture and our culture. Nor any separation of either form our happiness.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

This is exactly what Terror and Wonder is all about. Blair Kamin presents this compilation of his articles, which is largely made up off pieces written for the Chicago Tribune but also includes articles that appeared in Architectural Record, GreenSource, Metropolis, Dwell, and Oculus, as chronologically “bracketed by two great thunderclaps in the sky – the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 and the opening of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building […] in 2010.”

Kamin’s introduction starts by mentioning that this decade was a time of terror and wonder, and initially led me to think that he was going to present us only with a choice between door A and door B. In these beginning pages of the book, he mentions the World Trade Center, but then juxtaposes it with the completed construction of the extremely successful Millennium Park in Chicago (and if you want to read even more into this comparison, consider the twin fountain structures in the park). Similarly, he talks about the burst of the building bubble, but relates it to the positive interest in “green” as the reaction. In addition, he talks several times of “spectacle buildings” vs. sustainable ones. Is there always a dichotomy in architecture? We have plenty of examples of opposing groups – Greys vs. Whites, “rads and trads” – but what about the in-between? Certainly when talking about a decade of building, architecture can’t be classified into only terror and wonder. Luckily, Kamin eases up at the end of his introduction.

“After a wild spree of overbuilding, and the shocks of disasters, wars, and economic collapse, the end of this tumultuous decade brought an opportunity to gaze back with keen-eyed clarity at the glories we left behind as well as our all-too-abundant failures. Amid the ugliness and the excess were gems that promised to light the way down a brighter path.”

This last sentence gave me the confidence to keep reading and I was relieved to discover that Kamin doesn’t see things as black and white as he describes earlier. These two descriptions serve as  beginning and end points, but in the middle he has highlighted some incredibly nuanced topics that bridge the two extremes. In his five chapters, that move the narrative from “The Urban Drama” to “A New Era and New Challenges,” Kamin manages to show us the sophistication and human qualities of architecture and how it is influenced by and helps us to deal with the good and the bad events that happen in our daily lives.

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