Inga Saffron is the architecture critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Credit: Ryan Donnell
Architecture critic Inga Saffron joins the pantheon this week, as she is the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism. Her win is important for Philadelphia, and huge for the Philadelphia Inquirer, no question. There is no greater milestone in journalism, except in producing the body of work and enlightenment that the prize acknowledges.
This significance for the field of architecture criticism at large shouldn't be lost, either. Saffron is the first architecture critic to win the award since 1999, when Blair Kamin took it for the Chicago Tribune. Saffron is only the seventh architecture critic to receive the Pulitzer Prize for criticism since it was introduced in 1970, when Ada Louise Huxtable won the award for more or less inventing the field of architecture criticism for The New York Times. Robert Campbell of The Boston Globe (1996), Allan Temko of the San Francisco Chronicle (1990), Paul Goldberger of The New York Times (1984), and Paul Gapp of the Chicago Tribune (1979) are the other laureates. Several other architecture critics have been named as finalists (including Saffron herself—three times over the last decade).
The way into the hall of fame of criticism is narrow (and appropriately so). But the way forward for the practice of criticism as a whole seems almost as difficult. By my back-of-the-envelope math, there are only 13 full-time architecture critics working at U.S. newspapers today. Some of these architecture critics pull double-duty: Philip Kennicott at The Washington Post and Mary Louise Schumacher at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel both wear hats as art critics, for example. The New Republic leaps to mind as a magazine that employs a architecture critic (Sarah Williams Goldhagen). (Note: She is not a full-time staffer at the magazine.) Paul Goldberger, who wrote the "Skyline" column for The New Yorker from nearly 15 years, is today a contributing editor for Vanity Fair.
To be sure, this list (which is bound to be proved incomplete, and for that I apologize in advance) does not account for the many critics who write as freelancers and bloggers for news dailies, weeklies, magazines, and websites. (The criticism you read at ARCHITECT is produced by contributors.) But in a broader sense, it misses the larger truth. While newspapers today employ fewer critics than they have in the past, there is almost certainly more architectural criticism written today than at any point in journalism's history. Former Slate columnist (and this writer's good friend) Matthew Yglesias calls the present era the "Glory Days of American Journalism," referring to the bounty of journalism made available—and for the most part, free—to many readers, on most topics, at all times.
I hear a ring of sadness in that phrase, glory days—a note of nostalgia that, however inadvertent, seems to resonate in this context of criticism. It is hard to imagine that there are a dozen budding architecture critics understudying at the nation's dailies today. When The New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum tells the (mostly female and youthful) readers of Rookie magazine that there isn't a career path to follow to become a television critic today, she is making this honest point.
But that doesn't mean that the people looking up to Nussbaum or Saffron and learning from their accomplishments necessarily expect their careers. Yglesias finds hope in a media landscape that many people tend to write off as bleak by focusing on the needs and wants of readers. James S. Russell, former architecture critic for Bloomberg News, is right when he says. that his employer's decision to suspend a great part of its cultural coverage registers as "regrettably powerful signal that culture doesn't matter in our society and economy." His readers are nevertheless able to find more of his writing, and more architecture writing in general, than they found in the print era preceding the Internet.
In one sense, prizes like the Pulitzer appear to belong to a legacy media that is vanishing rapidly. But that doesn't mean that it's any less important as an inspiration for the next generation of writers. (And readers. And architects, too.) If Saffron's work matters—and plainly it does—then it will continue to shape the dialog about architecture even as the format of that conversation changes. It's great that there is a prize to acknowledge the greatest critical voices in print. Doing so helps to shape the voices that will come up as the nature of media changes.
Correction: This article neglected that Paul Gapp of the Chicago Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. It has been corrected. See all of the Pulitzer Prize winners here. The story also described Sarah Williams Goldhagen as a full-time employee of The New Republic. While she is named on the masthead as the architecture critic, she is not employed full time by the magazine.