Inga Saffron, Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, discusses her past professional life as a war correspondent and how that experience plays into her criticism of architecture today. Saffron says that, over time, architecture criticism has expanded beyond coverage of new buildings designed by “starchitects” to include the things that make a city work—not just the things that make a city look distinctive.
I had this romantic idea of being a foreign correspondent. After a few years of covering suburban towns, first for The Courier News [of central New Jersey] and then for The Inquirer, I was able to go overseas and cover the war in Yugoslavia, where I saw really terrible devastation of cities. That resonated with some of the worst urban renewal I saw in American cities. I became the Moscow correspondent later, and covered the war in Chechnya and saw more cities destroyed.
When I started working as an architecture critic, around 2000, I saw a lot of bad decisions being made in Philadelphia; buildings were being turned into surface parking lots and parking garages. I had a very strong feeling that that was not the right thing for Philadelphia to be doing because they were de-densifying the city and discouraging pedestrians. I would write these columns saying, “We should not be building standalone parking garages.” In response, people would say, “Parking garages aren’t what architecture critics should be writing about.” They’d say, “We need parking because people won’t come into downtown without it.” They thought I was really nuts to focus on such ordinary buildings. Even my friends would come up to me and say, “What is it you don’t like about parking?”
There’s been a strong divide in the field between critics who focus on innovation as it is expressed in glamorous buildings and those who are concerned with how cities are made. When I started, the expectation was that critics would cover glamorous buildings. I did some of that, too, like when the Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in L.A. There used to be this pack of architectural journalists jetting from one opening to another who were interested in where a building fit in the continuum of architectural history. I realized that, as a critic, I could not be meaningful to my readers if that was all I talked about.
To be relevant, architecture critics have become city critics who write about sustainability, transit, equity, and parks—things that weren’t typically in their wheelhouse. The definition of an architecture critic is much broader today than before.
—As told to Caitlin Reagan