Why Are Men Who Build Skyscrapers Afraid of This Woman?

Find out who’s not afraid to call a much-hyped downtown condo “a Frankenstein mix of historical elements”

SURROUNDED BY STEEL AND GLASS, she stands in the lobby of the Comcast Center, gazing up and around, doing the mental calculus that comes naturally after eight years in this job. Inga Saffron takes a long look at Humanity in Motion, the installation by sculptor Jonathan Borofsky that fills this cavernous entryway. It begins on the ground, with life-size statues of a black man and a child, both looking up above, where men and women carved of fiberglass walk along beams that crisscross in all directions. “I rather like the idea of all these people on these different trajectories that never intersect,” Saffron says. “It’s like a metaphor for humanity. The sculpture reflects the crossroads quality of what this could be. You can imagine the crowd of people completing this artwork.”

Borofsky’s creation was the subject of her column last November, so it’s driving Saffron absolutely crazy that she needs to wait until May — May! — to pour her thoughts on everything surrounding it into newsprint. Comcast’s gleaming tower is easily the most significant building in Philadelphia since Liberty Place first looked down on Billy Penn 21 years ago. Considering the economic impact of keeping the cable giant anchored here, it’s the city’s most critical development in a century. Its doors are open, but the plaza at its feet isn’t finished, so Saffron, the Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic and arguably the paper’s most feared columnist, has postponed her final judgment until the May completion. Somewhere high above, Brian Roberts holds his breath as Saffron speaks. “The plaza, the concourse, the public components to it,” she says. “That will make or break the building.”

[sidebar]Saffron isn’t just a critic — she’s a reporter and, often, an advocate in her weekly “Changing Skyline” column. Those roles muddy the journalistic waters at times, but in a city with a planning agency that’s asleep at the wheel and a tangled, ineffective zoning code, her words carry great weight. She not only applauds forward-thinking projects, like an aggressive remodeling of the Kimmel Center to draw more traffic, but pursues a vision of what Philadelphia could become. When Saffron wrote a five-part series on development along the Delaware River, she didn’t simply check off all the obvious blunders and squandered opportunities there — she saw lessons in how Louisville and North Jersey transformed their waterfronts, and took aim at a seemingly immovable object, Interstate 95, calling it a noose around the neck of Penn’s Landing. It’s not just architecture and aesthetics she’s writing about, but how the “built world,” as she calls it, affects us all in very real ways. Absent are the haughty academic pretensions some critics rely on. She knows those wouldn’t play here; they don’t for her, either. Instead, it’s her passion for cities — for this city — that drives her, making what could be a dull subject seem vital, demanding higher standards, and sending a message to every developer whose vision ends at the bottom line and every architect who plays it safe: Build at your own peril.

No matter how tough she may eventually be on the Comcast Center, it’s hard to imagine her critique will compare to last October’s napalming of the Symphony House in a column headlined “Nightmare on Broad Street.” “A Frankenstein mix of historical elements,” she wrote, keeping with the Halloween theme. “A sequined and over-rouged strumpet sheathed in a sickly shade of pink concrete.” “Gibberish.” And in case you weren’t sure where she stood: “the ugliest new condo building in Philadelphia.”

Saffron’s takedown was buzzed about for weeks, sparking controversy and a spirited rebuttal by Dr. Frankenstein himself, developer Carl Dranoff. Her colleagues love her. Architects, developers, and a certain former head of the zoning board quake as they tear open the paper each Friday. As one development insider says about Saffron’s assassination of Symphony House, “She absolutely destroyed him. Tore him a new asshole. Ask any builder — they’re afraid of her.”

Her power, though, lies not so much in her willingness to eviscerate ugly buildings as in what she believes is at stake: the future of the city. “Philadelphia can’t be satisfied anymore to just build new,” she wrote in the Symphony House critique. “The city needs to build well, with taste, integrity, creativity, and, whenever possible, real aesthetic ambition.”

AS SAFFRON DESCENDS into the newly extended SEPTA concourse beneath Comcast’s plaza, the first thing you notice is how smartly dressed the petite, 50-year-old married mom is — orange scarf knotted neatly over a gray sweater coat, a pleated skirt with dark purple heels and patterned stockings, the slightly asymmetrical brunette bob that frames her face. The subtle city chic suggests that her fashion influences lie well beyond the Delaware Valley. Saffron wears smart like a style, one she talks every bit as much as she walks. It would be easy to dismiss the refurbished Suburban Station as drab and uninspired, but Saffron notices a handicapped elevator with exposed gears and pulleys. “It matches the architectural language of the station,” she says. “They deserve credit.” Nearby, a series of leaf-shaped sculptures rises up from a courtyard and peeks out to the sidewalks above. “It would be nice if they were a little bigger,” she says. “At street level, you only see the little tips of these leaves.” Even a nearby wig shop is worth investigating: “This is my favorite vista in the city. It should be submitted to the Smithsonian.” Saffron takes out her digital camera and snaps a photo of the garish storefront. “There’s just so much vitality down here. It’s like an alternative universe.”

There’s little architectural value to a hair market, but Saffron doesn’t simply consider design and aesthetics when she evaluates a building. The first criterion is urban value — what does this tower or condo or retail space do for the neighborhood? Does it create life by inviting foot traffic and interaction with passersby, or is it sterile? Then there’s formal value, a structure’s beauty and craftsmanship. Her final consideration is a cultural one, and her toughest call. What does this edifice say about our times and our values? To consider how the 975-foot Comcast Center compares to similar buildings, Saffron studied the New York Times offices in Manhattan. “It was like, pow!” she says of that 856-foot skyscraper’s impact on the ground. “It was full of energy. I realized that Comcast’s setback [from the street] sort of saps the energy.”

That might sound like architecture-snob shop talk, but Saffron’s criteria reveal an attempt to balance artistic concerns with practical ones, without getting swept away in highfalutin design-speak. That’s partly out of necessity, since Saffron herself isn’t fluent in the sort of language you’d hear at an American Institute of Architects lecture. She doesn’t have a college degree in architecture or urban planning, or anything else, actually — after high school in Long Island led her to New York University, she studied in France for a year, then left for Dublin without graduating. In Ireland, Saffron found her calling in journalism, writing about the arts for local papers and stringing for Newsweek for two years before returning to the States to find work at a major newspaper.

After a few years at a small New Jersey daily, she joined the Inquirer’s Burlington County bureau in 1985 as a reporter. Saffron fit in well with the swaggering big-league reporting team. “The first time I met her, we were both covering a Christian reverend who was campaigning against smut,” recalls Penn Law Journal editor Larry Teitelbaum, who worked for a smaller rival paper in the ’80s. “Inga showed up and was peppering this person with questions, rapid-fire. On the one hand, I was really impressed. But I was a little taken aback by her style. She came in and took over.”

After years of courts, crime and other stripes-earning work, Saffron became the Inquirer’s New Jersey arts reporter under Bill Marimow; with Tom Kean’s administration shoveling money into cultural projects, she had plenty to write about. Saffron wasn’t exactly a diva in the newsroom, either, as evidenced by her other beat at that time — Camden County’s sewer authority. She spent most of the ’90s in Europe, as a freelance correspondent covering the conflicts in Croatia that boiled over into the Bosnian war, and in 1994 became the Inquirer’s Moscow bureau chief. Saffron used her spare time in Russia to research Caviar — a history of the fish-egg delicacy, published in 2002 by Broadway Books, that the Washington Post called “delicious,” if “occasionally tediously detailed.” 

She also filled in at times for the Inquirer’s architecture critic, Tom Hine, and soon made a discovery about her passions as a reporter. “I was always circling around architecture,” Saffron says, “and I realized it united all of these interests of mine: cities, art, social issues, public policy issues.” Even her coverage of warring Yugoslavia — “so much about 20th-century history, grappling with its identity” — was as much about place-making as politics. Two years after Hine left the paper in 1996, Saffron lobbied for the job and won it.

Perhaps it says something about the importance the Inquirer placed on architecture criticism that its editors would award the job to a college dropout with no formal training and just as much familiarity with South Jersey’s sewer systems as with design. But what Saffron lacked in elitist architectural vocabulary, she made up for with a nose for urban-planning matters and the guts to take on even the most sacred cows. “There are 130 stories about the Mural Arts Program. Only one is negative, and it has my name on it,” says Saffron, who criticized some of the program’s art as “sentimental” and “clichéd.” As she learned through her incoming e-mail, anything short of total adulation for Jane Golden’s nonprofit is blasphemy. “I,” she says, “was the Antichrist.”

It may seem out of place for an architecture writer to take on wall murals, but while the New York Times carries a critic and a reporter to cover architecture, Saffron serves as both for the Inquirer. “What makes Inga so valuable is that she centers on not just buildings, but broader issues of zoning and land use,” says deputy managing editor Tom McNamara. “In the absence of city planning, she’s filling a void.”

Saffron’s also reaching a broader audience than Hine, who was sometimes controversial but spoke mostly to the development and design community he covered. Her voice — demanding changes to the zoning code, taking the city to task for its patchwork planning, pushing for better solutions to the casino developments — echoes further and much more loudly. Just ask Carl Dranoff.

ON A MONDAY morning in October, Saffron spent four hours interviewing Dranoff and his architect at Symphony House, the first of three major projects with Dranoff’s name on them that are intended to revitalize the Avenue of the Arts. She stood with them on the building’s roof, looked down on Broad Street, and listened to Dranoff spin a romantic tale of what his new 32-story tower aspires to be: both timeless and a throwback to flapper-era glamour, with flourishes that echo the Academy of Music while declaring its own identity. Later, Saffron toured the building’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre and lavish condos, scanning every bay window and terrace. And then, that Friday, she savaged it.

According to her criteria, Symphony House’s formal value was nil — “Dranoff’s design philosophy seemed to be ‘too much is never enough,’” Saffron wrote. She did offer faint applause for the building’s urban behavior in housing the theater and providing ground-floor retail space to promote activity. But then came the matter of its cultural importance, and that’s where Saffron took off the gloves. Symphony House, she said, was a $125 million monument to all that’s wrong with urban planning here. “Partisans” will call Symphony House a success, she wrote, but in reality, they’re just happy that something — anything — replaced a gas station and a parking lot. Dranoff’s baby wasn’t just ugly. It was a symbol of regression in a Philadelphia that’s trying to move forward. “Imagine,” she wrote, “what the rest of [Dranoff’s] flotilla will look like.”

“She’s gone beyond her level of expertise,” Dranoff says of the lashing. “I’d call it tabloid press. I wasn’t surprised, but I was appalled by the language. The terms she used were not architectural terms. I could take the criticism if it wasn’t personal. I think it was meant to ridicule.”

The next day, he called Inquirer editor Bill Marimow to vent. Marimow says he understood Dranoff’s disappointment. “I thought the language in Inga’s review was unusually harsh,” he says. “I was sympathetic that someone spent all that time planning and dreaming, so I felt badly for him. I like critiques that are done with a scalpel, not an axe. But Inga has an absolute right to her opinion.”

In his letter to the editor that ran five days later, Dranoff defended his creation while reinforcing Saffron’s suggestion that the city’s usual suspects would rally around it. (“Should I assume,” Dranoff wrote, “that the zoning officials … our governor, senators, mayor and other high-placed civic officials who have called the project ‘visionary,’ ‘brilliant’ and ‘magnificent’ also all have bad taste?”) His point of view received unusual treatment — a teaser on the Inquirer’s front page for his letter declared, “A step ahead for Broad Street,” and its headline on the editorial page read, “Taking Exception: Defending a beautiful building.” Saffron says she was surprised to see a front-page headline slanted in support of Dranoff, who’s been advertising in the paper for 25 years. “People [in the newsroom] were a little taken aback,” says food columnist Rick Nichols. “We run rebuttals all the time, but when a critic goes out on a limb and takes a risk, you don’t want to even have the impression that somebody back there is going to saw off that limb.”

But it’s a new day at the Inquirer. In the wake of deep cutbacks, and further blurring the line between critic and reporter, Saffron, like everyone else, is required to work an occasional Sunday shift covering breaking news. So her story last August on a local man murdered in the Virgin Islands was bylined “staff writer,” while her column the next day identified her as “architecture critic.” When zoning board chairman David Auspitz stepped down in January, she was afraid she’d have to write a news story about it. How could she mute her critic’s voice to report on a public official who’d been her whipping boy for years? “She writes with an agenda,” says Dranoff. “She stops being a critic and becomes an advocate. That’s okay for blogs, but not when you’re the architecture critic for a major newspaper.”

Luckily, Saffron was already on deadline when Auspitz’s resignation surfaced, and another reporter covered it. She actually agrees with Dranoff’s point that her many hats at the paper are confusing to readers and potentially unfair to her subjects. But the newsroom has changed: Citizens Bank “sponsors” a news column on the front page of the business section, and reporters have been encouraged to post directly to the web, with no editing or oversight. “That’s why they call it fish-wrap,” says Saffron. “It’s a kind of journalism, but not the kind I want to practice. It’s been a long time since the Inquirer was the paper of record. We’re definitely not.”   

IN A PERFECT newsroom, Saffron would be either an architecture reporter or a critic, not both, and some say the latter role is a bit beyond her reach. “A prominent architect in the city called me up,” says Dranoff of someone who wants his name off Saffron’s radar. “He said commenting on individual buildings is completely out of her league.” Design legend Denise Scott Brown of Venturi Scott Brown agrees that Saffron isn’t equipped to discuss “high architecture,” or to compare the rebuilding of New Orleans with that of London after the Great Fire of 1666, as Scott Brown has done. But that’s not necessarily what this city needs. “The critics with formal training have other problems,” says Scott Brown, who insists that Saffron’s lack of academic jargon doesn’t make her less effective. “The French talk about education as formation. But it can also be deformation. She has brought up some important issues in Philadelphia.”

If public response to Saffron’s columns is any measure, Scott Brown is right. Saffron’s in-box and voicemail overflowed in the wake of her tepid critique of Citizens Bank Park and a story about the plumbers union uproar over waterless urinals in the Comcast Center. Her thoughtful analysis of Ben van Berkel’s Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart, which won a newspaper editors’ award? Not a single e-mail. Like food critic Craig LaBan, she creates a certain day-after buzz and “Did you see Inga’s piece on the Linc?” watercooler chatter when she reviews local icons. But while a no-bells slam from LaBan has a clear impact on business, the Saffron Effect is less direct. Even her Symphony House thumping was as much an assault on development business-as-usual as it was on one building, and in reality, its aftermath wasn’t apocalyptic for Dranoff, who says his condos are 80 percent sold. He’s also not in jeopardy of having his other projects on South Broad suffer from Saffron broadsides. 

One advantage visionary writers have over developers, of course, is that Saffron’s bottom line is column inches and deadlines. Dranoff and his peers have to arm-wrestle with unions, zoning board approvals, material costs and political interests just to get a Wawa built, never mind a condo tower. Developer Bart Blatstein, who has felt Saffron’s praise (calling his Pearl Theater an “oasis” on North Broad) and derision (trashing his “scheme” for the Schmidt’s Brewery site in Northern Liberties), says she’s become more sensitive to the economic realities of these projects. And he concedes that her critiques help “to raise the bar” on what gets built.

So all of this boot-quaking and fear over what Saffron will write next is sort of comical, says American Institute of Architects Philadelphia executive director John Claypool: “I don’t think an architecture critic in any city is going to make people lose business. Her impact is for someone working on their next project to think, ‘How can I make this better?’”

SAFFRON DIDN’T need formal architecture training or a vocabulary of “archobabble,” as one developer calls it, to shine a spotlight on the planning and zoning problems that have seeped into the foundations of this city. Those conversations once took place only in newsrooms, back rooms and boardrooms; last year, thanks in part to her coverage, they became an issue in the mayor’s race, and helped nudge Auspitz off the zoning board. As a multiple Pulitzer nominee for her criticism and a finalist in 2004, Saffron has attracted national attention, including interest from the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. Moving west with her husband, novelist Ken Kalfus, and their 14-year-old daughter wasn’t appealing, but if the New York Times had made her an offer instead of promoting from within, she says it would have been hard to resist. Still, Saffron doesn’t want to leave town. “Philadelphia is a really great subject,” she says. “What I do is so much more important for this city [than it would be for New York]. I feel like what I do is like a Dickens novel. It’s cumulative, and I’m in for the long haul. If you make issues of urbanism and civic values the subject of conversation, if you raise the standards, you’ve accomplished something.”

Saffron and Marimow never spoke about the Inquirer’s unusually sympathetic presentation of Dranoff’s letter, but the following month, her colleagues in the newsroom sent a message of their own. They handed Saffron the Ralph Vigoda Award — the paper’s monthly newsroom MVP trophy — for her work in October, which, not coincidentally, included the Symphony House column. Marimow himself surprised Saffron at her desk with a few dozen other staffers to read a gushing proclamation (and drew no parallels between her work and that of an ax murderer). “She had a real bang-up month,” says Nichols, who co-chairs the Vigoda committee. “It might have been in the back of people’s minds, when they may have been feeling a little chilled in their role [at the paper], to acknowledge solidarity for someone who’s honestly doing her job.”

WOE TO THEE, architect or developer who conjures up a parking garage that crosses paths with Inga Saffron. Back in January, after leaving the Comcast Center, she walks over to the half-complete skeleton of the Ritz-Carlton condos. (“Speaking of using the wrong material … ” she says.) Then it’s on to the Murano, a 42-story condo charged with injecting some life into an otherwise desolate stretch of Market Street west of City Hall. The squat tower itself is fine — it’s the garage attached to it that draws her ire, along with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. The association feared that retail space on the lot’s ground floor would become a panhandling hangout, so the builder was permitted to leave it empty. “Had the planning commission been involved instead of an untrained volunteer neighborhood group,” Saffron says, “it could have been different.” LSNA’s new leadership regrets that decision, too, but as Saffron stares at the gaping driveway and lifeless concrete on the garage’s ground floor, it’s obviously too late for change. “Architecture is unavoidable,” she says. “If there’s a painting on a wall that offends you, you don’t have to go back and see it. But our built world is something we share. Like the Comcast Center. We’ll never get past those security gates, so who cares what the offices look like? The building is part of our lives. It’s how we define ourselves as a city.”

Saffron positions herself across from the Murano and takes it in. “I like the muscularity of the concrete,” she says. “I like that it looks toward the train station and West Philadelphia.” She pauses. “I don’t like the garage.” Rush-hour commuters pass by in the winter darkness, crossing Saffron’s path as she stands on the sidewalk. Like those sculptures in the Comcast lobby, they gaze straight ahead, without noticing the one woman who’s looking up.