On a tour Thursday, the Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamin panned the largest LDS Church buildings for being "on the wrong side of the Cold War," but praised others as "handsome."
He called the city's skyline "pretty disappointing" - "this is just junk," he said pointing up from Main Street - but said the Main Library is "fabulous" and one of the best new buildings he has seen.
Kamin raved about the LDS temple, saying its spires evoke the craggy peaks of the Wasatch Mountains. The temple, he said, is the best feature of the skyline - despite "the 1960s and '70s hulks" surrounding it.
"It's smaller than I thought it would be," he smiled. "I thought it would be like Oz in Disneyland."
Tall, sharply dressed and bespectacled, Kamin looks like he walked out of central casting for critics. He is in town for a preservation conference hosted by the Utah Heritage Foundation.
Funny without being flip, the Pulitzer winner displayed a remarkable grasp of downtown despite this being his first visit to Utah's capital. But he is worried about its core.
Kamin cautions City Creek Center could be an inward-focused lifestyle center that may suck away the city's soul - its streets. He also would prefer to see demonstrations and any behavior within reason allowed on the LDS Church-owned property.
"I was aghast when I read that [prohibition] prospect which undercuts the soul of what a city is really about."
Kamin had no take on the planned sky bridge nor City Creek's design, which he has not seen.
"It's amazing for an outsider to walk down your Main Street," he said gazing into a dirt construction pit as a TRAX train zipped by. "It feels like China." Still, he called the scale of development, all at the same time, remarkable.
"I don't mean that it's good, but it's bold."
Kamin also has heartburn over gutting buildings but keeping their fronts. While the Brooks Arcade "isn't too bad," he says the ZCMI fix "illustrates the slippery slope of facade-ectomy."
On the positive side, Kamin gushed over the landmark library for its light, energy and views. Architecture makes time visible, he explained, and the 5-year-old edifice shows the contrast of different eras in the capital.
It has a "strong, modern monumentality," the critic said, without competing with the nearby City-County Building, which he also loves.
Kamin also likes the "beautiful" Alta Club, "beautifully restored" LDS Tabernacle and the "handsome" LDS Church Administration Building. Though the latter, he joked, was built with "Chicago-style nepotism" that included Brigham Young and his grandson. "They got away with it."
He praised the retrofit of a 1910 railroad freight house into the transit hub; applauded the loft trend for making downtown "more authentic"; and admired the Utah Capitol for commanding attention.
On a detour to the Avenues, Utah Heritage Foundation Executive Director Kirk Huffaker pointed out contrasts. Kamin, who commended an art deco home bordered by bungalows, said styles don't have to match - "to me, that's boring." But scale should.
Peering at 8th Avenue's so-called monster home, Kamin paused.
"It's like a mountain range."
* To learn more about the preservation conference, go to www.utahheritage foundation.org