“I Want You to Feel Cheated”: A Conversation with Lee Bey

Architecture criticism is in every single place and nowhere proper now. On TikTok and Instagram, all types of individuals flock round key phrases like #midcenturymodern. Some search lavish classic furnishings distributors; some are excited to be taught from researchers like @hoodmidcenturymodern; some are on the lookout for marginally cooler mates. 

“Critique” at this time is just a unique proposition than it was when the classical type of structure criticism mixed beat reporting with an understanding of buildings from the within out. The craft survives, nonetheless, within the journalism of Lee Bey, one of many final remaining newspaper structure critics within the United States. 

A brand new urbanist who educated at Chicago Vocational School to turn out to be a printing press operator, Bey is from Chicago, and have become a journalist whose weekly criticism of structure on the Chicago Sun-Times between 1996 and 2001 defines the shape, so far as it survives. In 2019, he published Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side, which acts as each a recollection of rising up touring town together with his father and a set of thrillingly alive-looking pictures of exceptional buildings, all photographed by him as effectively. 

Bey not too long ago returned to the publish of structure critic on the Sun-Times, the place he’s on the editorial board, after a break of 20 years. Lorraine Forte, the editorial web page editor, first met Bey once they had been each reporters on the paper, and says that when he was promoted to structure editor, “He actually constructed a neighborhood model, though I hate that time period. I lastly satisfied him to start out writing an structure column once more, as a result of everybody in Chicago, even individuals who don’t know structure, follows what he writes.” Bey has already provoked Senator Dick Durbin in a single column, and in one other, parsed the transformation of Helmut Jahn’s structure agency after its founder’s dying. 

In a Zoom dialog from—the place else?—Chicago, Bey was humorous and heat, clearly as a lot of an structure romantic as he’s a detective, and within the temper to debate break porn. Our dialogue has been edited and condensed for readability.

How does somebody turn out to be an structure critic? Let’s say that you simply had been at a highschool and someone requested you that. 

Bey: That’s a great query. On one aspect, when it comes to one’s private wants and expertise, having an curiosity in structure is useful. Obviously. Having a little bit of an eye fixed for buildings. But additionally being prepared to take a look at the social and financial forces, racial forces, and environmental forces that form structure. That results in the opposite aspect of the equation, which is that you simply want a publication that desires an structure critic. 

Many newspapers suppose, “Well, I received an actual property individual writing about buildings, I don’t really want an structure critic writing about structure.” But the advantage of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Tribune is that for years they’ve acknowledged that structure is mostly a story of politics, race, class economics, preservation, all these issues—that are all points that hit residence in Chicago. 

That’s the lengthy reply. In my case, once I turned an structure critic again in ’96, once I first labored for the Sun-Times, we had an editor who was eager about structure and who needed an structure beat. So, you understand, we created one. Then I left in 2001, did a thousand and one jobs, then got here again to the Sun-Times in 2019. So, nearly 20 years later, I joined the editorial board and didn’t wish to write about structure as a critic. But when [architecture critic] Blair Kamin left the Tribune, and it appeared clear that they weren’t gonna instantly substitute him, I believed, effectively, we gotta do one thing. And so Lorraine Forte, our editorial web page editor, and Steve Warmbir, the interim editor, and I received to speaking after which mentioned, okay, let’s do that as soon as a month. So it premiered May 1st—the primary column after 20 years. 

Congratulations on coming again. What is it that makes architectural criticism so essential for Chicago and the individuals who stay there? 

Well, you understand, it’s a factor we debate about. I imply, we debate sports activities, climate, politics, all these issues. For occasion, my first column was about these two buildings in downtown Chicago, the Century and the Consumers’ buildings—two early-Twentieth century skyscrapers on State Street that the federal authorities purchased years in the past and now desires to tear down for safety causes. I discuss in regards to the structure of the buildings, however actually the column is in regards to the propriety of tearing these buildings down. The General Services Administration and the federal authorities had been traditionally good companions in constructing good structure in Chicago. So what’s occurring right here? It was the most-read piece within the paper that weekend. It was nice to debut that means, however the feedback on social media, most likely solely 10 % of them had been in regards to the design of buildings. About 90 % had been about what’s happening politically. 

Then Dick Durbin responded with an editorial about how this was really all for the preservation of structure that was extra essential, for safeguarding the Dirksen Courthouse, which I believed was type of ironic. 

It was type of ironic. Yeah. Dirksen, and the judges which are in it. He doesn’t actually reply the questions. But to have the response from the senator, I believed that was a great factor. I imply, he learn it, or someone learn it and determined to reply. 

What’s modified since final time round, and what are you feeling about what’s forward? 

You know, it’s fascinating. I imply, to return again after 20 years, it’s astounding. It isn’t that lengthy to me, nevertheless it actually is. I’ve three daughters and my youngest daughter is 21. So she doesn’t bear in mind me being an structure critic. 


And she’s a grown lady! So that reveals me how lengthy it’s actually been. What’s modified? Obviously the web and social media is one change. I imply, you get on the spot suggestions on what you’ve written and it higher be proper. Because you’re gonna get roasted if it’s not. The different factor is that, once I was writing within the ’90s, throwing in items about sustainability and the local weather and the way buildings ought to reply to it, folks had been like, we don’t wish to hear that, inform us in regards to the Mies Van Der Rohe constructing getting landmarked or one thing like that. And now, that’s the place the dialogue is.

Preservation then was largely seen as, you understand, this act of benevolence—to avoid wasting essential buildings. Now, we will see the embedded power that’s destroyed once we demolish a constructing. Why can’t we save that? Why does that constructing should replenish a landfill? The most sustainable factor you are able to do to a constructing in structure is protect the one which’s there. So all these questions which are entrance and middle now, had been much less so 20 years in the past. 

For occasion, I’m going to be trying on the Lake Shore right here in Chicago someday this summer time. What’s the plan for North Lake Shore Drive—not simply the way it would possibly beautify this stunning drive within the Parkland, however what’s it going to do along with that to cease erosion alongside the lake?

I additionally discover myself transportation much more than I did 20 years in the past. It’s actually like six beats in a single now, versus only one specialty beat. 

How has it been to enter metropolis politics and are available out once more—to float out and in of that machine? Has that modified the best way that you concentrate on buildings? 

Yeah, it has. And for the higher. The three or 4 years I spent at City Hall had been the perfect schooling I ever had, together with school and highschool, since you get an opportunity to see not solely how initiatives get developed, however the political levers, and who’s actually pulling them. For occasion, I’m engaged on an editorial that appears on the metropolis’s on line casino bid. Chicago desires, and has been making an attempt for 30 years, to get a city-owned on line casino. The concept being that the income from the on line casino may help repay debt. 

A municipal on line casino. 

Exactly. And a developer would function it, however the skim would come to town. Having achieved time in metropolis authorities, it provides you such a great sense of learn the tea leaves. Reporters, we predict we all know all of it. Then what you discover is that there’s a darkish aspect of the moon there. I used to be lucky to have the ability to get an opportunity to see it and see the way it operates, see what’s again there and be capable of use that to my benefit as a author. 

But it didn’t kill your dedication to and your ardour for the constructed surroundings and town of Chicago. 

It didn’t. Because, you can take a look at some issues and be very cynical, however then you can take a look at it and say, there’s nonetheless plenty of energy on this metropolis to do good and to construct effectively. And when town does it proper, it does it very well. And so that you may be start to ask the query: If it can save you the old Main Post Office, the whitest of elephants, the elephant of elephants, the whitest elephant of elephants potential—an enormous constructing that was deserted by the postal service and sat deserted for nearly 30 years, then 5 years in the past turns into the most important adaptive reuse venture in America—if that may occur, then why can’t it occur, for example, for the Century and Consumers’ building? You know, why can’t it occur to Lakeside Center, the previous McCormick Place constructing, if it wants a brand new future. We roll the bulldozers very quick within the metropolis, however we additionally do issues very effectively when the playing cards line up, and it makes you surprise—why can’t it occur right here? 

One of the nice strengths of your architect critic mind is the best way that you’ve got dedicated to seeing one place change over time. What do you concentrate on the connection between the native and the common in structure? If that’s not too summary of a query. 

If there’s a by means of line in it, it’s that buildings are very private—greater than many individuals give them credit score for. An individual who’s abroad who’s simply struck by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, or Mies Van Der Rohe—it’s like me as a child within the backseat of his father’s automotive, buildings. There’s one thing there that’s very, very private as a result of, finally, they’re constructed for us. We are likely to overlook typically that the explanation why folks really feel so drawn to buildings is as a result of they’re constructed for us. Particularly in Chicago, folks care deeply about these buildings—folks exterior of Chicago care very deeply about these buildings. 

What spurred you to create your 2019 ebook, Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side

Particularly within the Trump years, this form of shorthand developed about Chicago, and significantly in regards to the predominantly Black South Side, and in addition the West Side of Chicago, which is smaller: That it was simply this wasteland. Even in my 30s, vacationer maps wouldn’t embrace the South Side. 

Like New Orleans East. Getting minimize off the map. 

Exactly. And it is like, don’t even come, you understand? And if you do hear in regards to the South Side, it’s crime or, you understand, a child goes to school, regardless of what the newspaper thinks is a one-in-a-million probability. When there are folks all around the South Side going to school. There’s that type of factor you wish to push and push towards. I needed to seek out these buildings as a result of, the uncommon occasions when the South Side is photographed, on social media, say, it’s at all times the deserted constructing.

When these footage don’t interrogate the explanation why that home, that church, that old style is in that situation, then it runs the danger of confirming stereotypes about cities like Detroit or St. Louis or the South Side, which is, see what occurs once they transfer in? They fuck it up. I’m sorry. They, uh, they mess it up. 

Southern Exposure—and this was type of a pretzel to do—needed to point out the great things, however clarify what disinvestment is, significantly when it’s based mostly on race and the type of theft that has occurred to those areas, creating these circumstances. And then we wish to flip again another time and say, that mentioned, these locations are nonetheless value rallying round. And the individuals who stay right here, you understand, are actually doing unimaginable work. It’s a posh story that doesn’t simply say, take a look at this stunning church. It was once the most important church within the metropolis. Now it’s this. You know, after which we stroll away.

In phrases of favor of photographing, I needed the blue sky behind all the pictures. I photographed it throughout the summer time of ’17 and ’18, I believe. It’s already gonna be 5 years for a few of them. In Chicago, we’re predominantly a blue metropolis, a blueish metropolis, however nonetheless, it was a bizarre time. And so I needed blue skies. I needed to convey hope and optimism with these pictures.

I needed to point out folks buildings that had been in good situation, buildings that had been taken care of. Buildings that pushed towards that norm. I needed to point out quite a lot of buildings in varied neighborhoods. In my thoughts, I need folks to suppose, you understand, why haven’t I seen this earlier than? I needed Chicagoans to really feel that means. And once I’ve received that in among the ebook signings, I believed, good, that’s what I need you to really feel. I need you to really feel cheated. 

I got here away from the ebook newly cognizant of how usually ruins are the results of builders shopping for stuff up and never doing something with it. It’s nothing to do with regular folks. 

Exactly. Or banks that determine to undervalue a neighborhood, simply because Black and brown folks transfer in. I bear in mind when my daughters had been youthful we lived in a neighborhood known as Beverly on the Southwest aspect of Chicago—you understand, a center class, upscale neighborhood. And once we first purchased the home, we had been doing work on it, So, you understand, to kill time, when roofers had been making an excessive amount of noise or no matter, we’d take the children for a experience. And I’d present ’em different elements of the South Side. They had been beginning to ask questions: Why does that neighborhood not look pretty much as good as ours?

And I’d say, look, you noticed these roofers on that home. That roof is $35,000. But it’s in an space the place I may get a mortgage from the financial institution very simply to pay for it, as a result of the home has worth which, that very same roof, 30 blocks to the north, it’s gonna price the identical quantity, however the home might not be value far more than the value of the roof. So, it turns into a danger, and also you don’t get the loans. So what are you gonna do in the event you stay in that home? 

So that’s the backstory, once we see that American Foursquare with the home windows damaged out and nobody lives there. Long earlier than the vandals got here, there was one other vandalism that occurred. 

What’s subsequent for you? 

Blair Kamin and I’ve teamed up on a ebook known as Who Is the City For? It’s a ebook of his columns. He had it already underway after which he calls me up and says, ‘Would you love to do the pictures for it?’ And I believed, effectively, if Gene Siskell and Roger Ebert can do it, so can we. So sure, that comes out in November. It’s his stunning phrases in regards to the metropolis, and my pictures. It was enjoyable. I needed to shoot very quick and there have been moments once I suppose he was questioning, is he gonna end? And I used to be like, go away me alone. You know, I shot a whole ebook. And wrote it [laughs].

Images courtesy of Lee Bey and University of Chicago Press

Related Reading:

You Don’t Need to Be an Architect to Take Michael Sorkin’s Advice

Architecture Critic Nikil Saval Joins the Pennsylvania State Senate in a Time of Crisis



Express your views here

Disqus Shortname not set. Please check settings

On North Dakota and Minnesota’s WZFG-AM radio: Discuss voter fraud and media bias on mass public shooters’ political opinions

Father of Queens teen hit by stray bullet whereas finding out says ‘everyone seems to be scared’