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The 2014 Pulitzer Prize Celebrates On-The-Ground Architectural Criticism

Inga Saffron becomes one of only six other architecture writers to receive the award

Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Joining an elite group of only six other architecture writers to have received the coveted prize for excellence in US journalism, Saffron’s critical interest in the architecture of the everyday make her an intriguing Pulitzer laureate. Her column has appeared in the Inquirer weekly since 1999 when Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin became the previous architecture writer to be honoured with the prize.

Awarded since 1970, the prize in criticism was first premiated to the late, great Ada Louise Huxtable, then of the New York Times, who is said to have been the first full-time architecture critic at any US newspaper. Huxtable had been hired at the Times in 1963, and her success convinced other papers to hire architecture critics to supplement the more common fine art, music and literature reportage. At the height of their influence (and the height of newspaper subscribership) in the 1980s, around a dozen major papers had dedicated critics writing about the built environment.

Whereas the pantheon of architecture critics in the UK is filled with travellers and nomads – Pevsner, Meades, Banham and their ilk – there is a contrary tradition in the US of embedded on-the-ground, journalistic writing dealing with the everyday realities of city development and articulating in quotidian language strategies for bettering the urban environment. In the beginning, with Huxtable and the San Francisco Chronicle’s irascible Allan Temko, the critic’s beat was intensely local, but change came with subsequent Times critics Paul Goldberger and Herbert Muschamp, among others. Reviewing notable buildings in far-flung locales for the benefit of the paper’s cosmopolitan subscribers, these globetrotting critics made their writing relevant to a larger and less strictly regional readership. Yet this relevance and readership arguably came at the expense of the outsize influence their predecessors had accrued over the shaping of their respective cities – in this regard, Saffron’s style is a throwback to a approach.

First and foremost a journalist, Saffron’s work takes more interest in the processes than the products of urban development. In spite of her column’s title ‘Changing Skyline’, Saffron says that she views her role as less a critic of architecture than of city life, concerning herself not only with the relative quality or deficiency of its built environment but also with the bustling street life and cultural diversity that fascinated another of her obvious forebears, Jane Jacobs. Like Jacobs, Saffron’s writing takes the long view of urban transformation and pays attention to unglamorous yet nonetheless powerful players in the life (or death) of the city’s streets. Her writing covers not only the newest and most outstanding buildings in Philadelphia but also confronts the unchecked power of the city’s zoning board and decries the deadly results of the real estate speculator’s neglect of empty, decaying buildings. In her review of Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi’s magnificent new nanotechnology building for the University of Pennsylvania, Saffron praised attempts at blending landscape with architecture, but strongly questioned its effectiveness as a campus gateway, one of the architects’ main selling points from an urban perspective. This robust level of critique, even when dealing with contemporary architecture, shows Saffron is admirably unafraid of deploying the same everyday common sense she uses to judge less superlative buildings.

One of the most fervent of her past articles deals with an epidemic of ‘garage-fronted townhouses’, a scourge made illegal by the city’s planning commission, yet condoned by the zoning board through an untold number of allowances issued to developers. For Saffron, this unassuming and sub-architectural trend represents the single greatest threat to Philadelphia’s streets. If her attention was directed exclusively at the city’s shiniest architectural baubles, who would there be to resist this regrettable transformation? Such writing makes an ardent plea for more critics willing to take up the mantle of urban citizenship. American cities need more advocates for better buildings, landscapes and streets who have the tirelessness and humility of Inga Saffron.

Further Reading

For those wishing to quickly gain a sense of Inga Saffron’s critical style, a selection of her work is now available on the Pulitzer website

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