Truth be told, Inga Saffron seemed a little embarrassed about appearing on Philly Mag’s list of the city’s 75 most-powerful people. (The issue is on newsstands now.) “So far I have not succeeded in bending anybody to my will,” she emailed when we requested this interview.
But then Saffron on Monday won a Pulitzer Prize for her writing as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic. The award citation said she “blends expertise, civic passion and sheer readability into arguments that consistently stimulate and surprise,” and that sounds about right, even if she hasn’t bent anybody to her will.
Saffron talked with Philly Mag last week about architecture criticism, the late-arriving triumph of urbanism, and her fondness for Philadelphia. Some excerpts:
In this day and age, isn’t it kind of remarkable that a daily newspaper, of any size, can still keep an architecture critic on staff?
(Laughs) Well, there’re not many of us left, it’s true. And I just got back from a little conference that we have every year and we all sit in one very small room. But I do think it makes sense for big city newspapers to have an architecture critic because… well, the title sounds narrower than it actually is. And it’s a super-relevant beat right now; cities are changing in a very dramatic way — very fast. To have someone that is tuned in to land-use issues, development issues, design, gentrification and the intersection of all those things … architecture and urbanism bring it together so much.
You didn’t have formal training in architecture when you took the job though, did you? And as I understand it, you’ve been a correspondent and you’ve given the nature of cities a lot of thought. How did you build your credibility on this beat?
Well, first of all I should say that I started out just, you know, an ordinary journalist and did the things that all young newspaper journalists do. I covered small towns, I covered planning and zoning board meetings, school board meetings, civil authority meetings. I learned a lot about how land use decisions are made and the implications of those decisions. That’s one thing. I did study art history which included some architectural history. And I think being a foreign correspondent was great training for being an architecture critic because I was in a number of different countries and cities and I saw the way that those societies constructed their cities and how their values were translated through what they built.
All those things, you know, being an ordinary suburban reporter, being a foreign correspondent really gave me a perspective on how we shape our built environment. So, going to your question, “How did I get credibility?”see I don’t think you need to be an architect to be an architecture critic. In fact, it might even be bad for you to be an architect because I’m not writing about the profession of architecture. I’m not writing about what architects do; I’m writing for a broad, general audience, so it helps to be a civilian and see things through the eyes of the reader and the citizen.
You were pro-city, pro-urbanist, pro-waterfront development even before those concepts were cool, maybe. It seems that Philadelphia celebrates its walkability and relative ease of transit more than ever before. The millennial generation certainly seems to use cars much less than its predecessors and that’s affected how and where they live. Is this just a cycle, do you think? Or did your perspective win out?
Well, I think, as a society, all of America and cities in particular, are going through a profound change right now. I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be writing about cities because we’ve had this … (pauses) I’m blanking on the word. I don’t want to call it “paradigm shift,” but millennials have really transformed the thinking about cities. And you see this generational divide a lot and it’s an incredible thing. When I first started covering this in 1999 and I would write a negative story about parking garages and say, “You don’t want a city full of parking garages,” people would shake their heads and say, “You’re nuts!” and “Don’t you know we need downtown parking garages?” And now, it’s really interesting to me that there are all these writers out there on websites and blogs and other publications that are saying the exact same things. I think that the world has caught up and I think that’s an exciting and really gratifying thing.
Aside from the Mural Arts program, what’s the most troubling trend you see in the development of Philadelphia’s public and private spaces?
I don’t think the Mural Arts is the most troubling, by the way. It’s one thing, one thing. You know, one thing I’m really concerned about is the quality of construction in Philadelphia and I don’t think it’s unique to Philadelphia. Everything is very much driven by the bottom line and labor’s expensive, materials are expensive. Everyone’s trying to make a lot of money. And what we’re seeing in Philadelphia, and other cities, is poor-quality construction, poor-quality design, poor-quality materials. We’re so lucky in Philadelphia. We have this great collection of buildings made out of brick and stone that will last basically forever if we take care of them. The way the economics have shifted, we’re now building practically out of plastic and really really cheap materials. We’re building buildings that are meant to have a life span of 30 years and I think this is really a terrible trend.
You had a Harvard fellowship a couple years ago. Your work appears regularly in the New Republic. You’ve worked all over the world as a foreign correspondent. You’ve been a Pulitzer finalist several times. Why is Philly the place you choose to stay and think about?
Well, I love Philadelphia, first of all. It’s my home. Now, all the big issues facing cities are here and this is a place where you can be in the trenches and you can live it. And I don’t feel like I’m writing about local issues. I feel like these are international issues here. I’ve always felt that way. These are the really big urban problems of our time and this is a great place to write about them.
You talk about Philadelphia being a place to write about universal issues. What, if anything, makes Philadelphia distinct to you in terms of how its urbanism expresses itself?
You know Philadelphia, obviously, is not the biggest city in America, but it’s big enough. It’s a lot bigger than Boston, I discovered when I was at Harvard. Way bigger, way more sophisticated. So it’s big enough to have a lot of sophisticated and smart people, but small enough that you can get your arms around a lot of stories. It’s small enough that you can bump into sources on the street, which I really love. So there’s not a whole lot of layers to work through when you need to find someone to ask some questions. I really like the accessibility of that.
Your question was “What makes Philadelphia distinctive? You know, I think having a lot of low-scale but also high-rise buildings. This mix of scales makes a city really interesting, this mix of neighborhoods and just its diversity of people. Diversity of architecture, diversity of problems. It’s just an endlessly interesting place.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.