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Lee Bey: From architecture critic
to Chicago’s City Hall
Interviewed by John E. Czarnecki, Assoc. AIA

Photograph by Brad Baskin

Although not trained as an architect, Lee Bey is one of the most influential people when it comes to Chicago’s built environment. The City of Chicago’s Mayoral Deputy Chief of Staff for Planning and Design since May 2001, Bey was the architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times during the previous four years. A Chicago native, he has taken his knowledge of the city and architecture to City Hall, where he advises Mayor Richard M. Daley on architecture and urban-planning issues, such as downtown development, lakefront protection, parks construction, and architectural preservation. Bey is also the spokesperson for the mayor on issues that are contentious, such as the Soldier Field reconstruction, which the mayor supports.

Q: When working with Mayor Daley, who is known for having a strong interest in city building and making Chicago one of the “greenest” cities, how much influence do you have on his policy? Do you find yourselves always on the same page on issues?

I didn’t study architecture and neither did the mayor, but we both approach it in a similar way. We’re both natives who work to improve the city. There are times, as an adviser, when I am able to challenge a notion or say no.

The face of public housing is drastically changing in Chicago. Are you the mayor’s voice at the table in discussions on public housing?

Yes. And the mayor feels passionate about this. As the new housing developments get to a stage where they are about to be approved, the mayor’s office weighs in heavily to make sure that the buildings are not just attractive but that they make sense in the neighborhood.

What has your role been with the redevelopment of Soldier Field?

When I started in May 2001, construction hadn’t begun yet and we were still pinning down final design points—things that the mayor wanted. My role originally was to see that those tweaks got in. From that point, my role expanded to become the mayor’s person making sure that all of the processes are working and that all sides are talking to each other. My role is sort of enforcer some days, negotiator other days, and hand-holder other days.

What’s the biggest difference between your prior role as critic and your current role working with the mayor?

Compared to work with a newspaper, the stakes are higher here. My actions or inactions can reflect on the mayor. That was an adjustment that was tough for me to make. People assume that what I am saying are the mayor’s words.

When you left the Sun-Times, the newspaper did not replace you with a new architecture critic. Now Chicago has only one architecture critic, Blair Kamin [also Record contributing editor], at the Chicago Tribune. In your mind, how important is it for daily newspapers to have architecture critics?

I tried my darnedest to get the Sun-Times to hire someone else and, for whatever reason, it just didn’t. It’s a real loss. Blair and I were the only competing architecture critics in the United States. Architecture critics are extremely important, especially in these post-9/11 times. People care more about the built environment now, and the papers need to pick up on that and really seize the moment. The architecture critic can be an advocate and can explain the complex world of architecture to the layman. There has to be a place for criticism—to challenge why things are being built.