Roger Ebert: An architecture critic, too

April 5, 2013

 

"I walk around Chicago, and look up at buildings of variety and charm. I walk into lobbies of untold beauty. I ascend in elevators fit for the gods. Then I walk outside again and see the street defaced by the cruel storefronts of bank branches and mall chains, scornful of beauty. Here I squat! they declare. I am Chase! I am Citibank! I am Payless Shoe Source! I don't speak to my neighbors. I have no interest in pleasing those who walk by. I occupy square footage at the lowest possible cost. My fixtures can be moved out overnight. I am capital."

 Roger Ebert, discussing architecture in his Chicago Sun-Times blog, July, 12, 2010.

During my nine years at the Chicago Sun-Times and in the 12 years since, Roger Ebert and I kept in touch, occasionally sending email to one another—mostly about film. We discussed the brilliance of 1993's Tombstone, particularly Val Kilmer's performance as Doc Holliday; that Michael Mann's big screen hit Heat was really a remake--albeit a fine one--of the director's 1989 made-for-TV film, L.A. Takedown.  In 2007, I sent Roger a link to a music video by the British girl group, the Pipettes, that paid homage to a scene in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the 1970 Russ Meyer film for which Ebert wrote the screenplay.

"God, that's great!" he began his reply. He hadn't seen the music video before.

But the one thing I do regret--and I lament this in light of Roger's death yesterday at age 70--is that in all those years, we never discussed architecture. We should have. Roger's eloquent paragraph at the beginning of this post shows how deeply he cared about architecture and urban spaces. The conversations we should have had. If only time and fate allowed.

Roger frequently took on subjects other than film, particularly in his later years. Politics. Culture. And architecture, where he sounded the alarm against civic inattention, mercantile forces or could-be-built-anywhere architectural styles that, in his view, ruined places that were authentic, historic and vibrant. When a congregation last year sought to turn the North Side's historic Portage Theater into a church, Ebert told his followers on Twitter: "Chicago has countless churches but not enough theaters like the very special Portage. Help save it."

And when a 17th century London street was targeted for redevelopment tied to the 2012 Olympics, Roger wrote an essay about it in The Guardian. He'd frequented the street for a quarter century and often stayed in a hotel there. The prospect of it being wiped away pained him.

"Some obscene ­architectural extrusion will rise upon the sacred land, some eyesore of retail and condos and trendy dining," he wrote. "Piece by piece, this is how a city dies. How many cities can spare a hotel built in 1685, the year James II took the crown? I will barely be able to bring myself to return to ­Jermyn Street, which is, shop for shop, the finest street in London."

He thought modernist architecture was sterile and dehumanizing, which is near heresy in a city like Chicago, but he had the courage to talk about it. He once blogged a photo of a new Dubai water cooling plant--it looked like a giant black cube looming over a small army of blue-jumpsuited workers--with the caption, "I don't know anything about architecture, but I know Brutalism when I see it."

Architecture fans took him to task for an incorrect use of the name of the architectural style. They were right. But I knew what Roger meant: that what the giant structure did to the landscape and to the public realm was "brutal." Metaphorically, he used a butter knife instead of a screwdriver, but he still got the job done.

Roger also disliked what happened to many of Chicago's old movie palaces—those grand places where architecture and film once met to great effect. Earlier this year, he wrote a wistful introduction to photographer Eric Holubow's stunning photo essay in Chicago magazine on shuttered movie theaters. He ends the essay thusly:

"The Uptown still stands at Broadway and Lawrence, its decaying interior like a mausoleum. The laughter has faded. The smell of popcorn no longer drifts in from the lobby. Some landmarks have been restored: the Chicago, the Oriental, the Bismarck (now the Cadillac Palace). All over Chicago, the bones and the memories of our other movie palaces linger. For them, the last picture show has closed."

Three years ago for the website Design Observer, Alexandra Lange correctly wrote the architecture critic's role was bigger than merely writing about the appearance of buildings. Deep down in the comments section, someone hit the nail on the head.

"Architecture criticism needs a Roger Ebert," the comment read. "Someone who is a fan but not a fan-boy. Someone who loves cities and values context more than ideology."

And with that, I can't help but think of the further conversations Roger could have had—with us all—about architecture and cities. He had so much more to say. If only time and fate allowed.