Alumni Q+A: Inga Saffron LF’12

Going from covering suburban planning-board meetings to witnessing sectarian violence in the Balkans may not seem like the most obvious career path, but for 2012 Loeb Fellow alumna Inga Saffron, it was a natural progression that ultimately led to her current role as the architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. For nearly 15 years, Inga has devoted her time writing the popular weekly column “Changing Skyline,” offering readers an insightful look at the urban design issues facing Philadelphia. Earlier this year, she was awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize for her criticism of architecture that “blends expertise, civic passion and sheer readability into arguments that consistently stimulate and surprise.”

Congratulations on being honored the Pulitzer Prize for criticism! As a longtime journalist, how does it feel to be recognized by such a prestigious award and what does this mean to you?
Thanks! It’s a huge honor and an affirmation of the work I’ve been doing for more than a decade. It’s been really gratifying to see the design community take pleasure in the award, as well. I have the feeling that architects, planners and urbanists see the prize as recognition of the importance of the issues we care about. Philadelphians have taken a lot of pride in it, too—not only because one of their own won, but because they see it as evidence that the city is doing some cutting edge work. It’s amazing how many strangers have come up to me on the street to congratulate me. I’ve been tilting at windmills for so long, I didn’t realize that I’d actually accomplished something.

You joined the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1985 as a suburban reporter and later worked as a foreign correspondent for the paper. You’ve since changed gears and you’re now the architecture critic. How did you go from covering wars and destruction to writing about architecture, design and planning issues?
A lot of people ask me about this transition. It may seem like an unorthodox career path, but newspaper reporters tend to be generalists who can write about all sorts of things. One day you’re covering city hall, the next you’re on the medical beat. But I also believe that no experience in life is wasted. All my beats—covering interminable suburban planning and zoning board hearings (not to mention those lengthy Sewer Authority meetings!), living in various European cities, covering wars in Yugoslavia and Chechnya—actually provided me with a foundation for exploring architecture and urban design issues.
As a foreign correspondent, it was very painful to witness the destruction of Sarajevo and Grozny, which were claimed by different ethnic and interest groups. Covering those wars brought back memories of the urban renewal era. Although I was a child during that time, growing up in the New York area, I have distinct recollections of what existed before and what was erased. My great-grandparents owned a small apartment building at 7th and Avenue D, now part of a housing project. So, it wasn’t hard to see a connection between what was happening in those two foreign cities and what had happened in my own country. My interest in the after-effects had been kindled, too, by my very first newspaper job. I was assigned to cover a small New Jersey city, Plainfield, where the downtown had been obliterated in the ‘60s in the name of revitalization. But when I arrived in the ‘80s, the blocks that had been leveled were still vacant. That experience stuck with me my entire career.

You believe you can’t write about places without writing about architecture. Can you elaborate on this? Does architecture help shape a city or town in the same way as public policy and decisions made by one’s local government?
I think so. You can learn so much about a society’s values by what they build. There is so much money and politics in real estate development. Architecture is an expression of how they come together, so I feel like it’s a great entry point to writing about city policy. To understand an architectural proposal, I’m forced to become an expert in all the forces that shaped the design—politics, money, real estate, market preferences, programmatic constraints, engineering issues, social issues, aesthetics, etc. I sometimes feel that reporters in city hall or on the business desk miss the larger story because they only see a project through the lens of their narrow subject. Most reporters in those beats never think design is a result of all the tensions.

You were a Loeb Fellow at the GSD in 2012. Why did you apply to the program and how did you utilize your time spent here?
Although I had taken quite a few art and architectural history courses when I was in college, I’ve always felt handicapped by never having studied architecture in a formal way. I wanted to get a better idea of how architects (and landscape architects and planners) think, and I thought if I hung around the GSD for a year that I would have a kind of mind-meld. I also had this crazy idea that I needed a better grounding in theory, even though it’s not something you can really discuss in the average newspaper story.

While I wasn’t able to take studio courses as a Loeb, just being around the building and taking lecture courses did give me a ring-side seat on the process of becoming an architect. One the best hands-on experience was my class’ collaboration with Rahul Mehotra’s Mumbai studio. We spent a lot of time talking to students about their projects and going to reviews. Then we all traveled together to Mumbai and got to grapple with this real-world design problem together.

My class also organized the amazing Mud Works project, where we built a rammed earth installation in front of Gund Hall. There’s nothing like hauling and ramming heavy buckets dirt with architecture students to give you a deep understanding of how buildings are made.

I also took a variety of courses at some of Harvard’s other schools. A course on the history of the internet with the Kennedy School’s Nicco Mele opened my eyes about a subject I thought I knew pretty well. This will sound strange, but I learned more than I could ever imagine about critical theory in a graduate-level comp lit course with David Damrosch. (Interestingly, there were several GSD students in that one.) I’ve always loved art and literature, so I indulged those interests by taking courses on poetry, Baroque Rome and Chinese history. As I said before, none of it was wasted. Sometimes I felt guilty for reverting to my liberal arts ways.

One last thing: In the end, I learned as much from my fellows as I did from all the courses I took and the books I read. We had loads of parties and every one was like a graduate seminar. The
Were there any positive or negative experiences in particular about your time as a Loeb you’d like to share?

There were no negatives! Most memorable moment was doing an impromptu Bollywood dance film in our Hyderabad hotel.

In what ways has your experience as a fellow affected and/or influenced your work today?
I like to joke that I became really good at Twitter while I was at Harvard, but there is truth in that. Two of my fellow fellows founded web start-ups and I absorbed a lot internet sensibility from them and from Nicco’s class. I started to understand how important it is to build (and control) your brand on the web. I did quite a bit of social media and blogging while I was there. (I created a blog to chart the progress of Mud Works.) When I got back to Philadelphia, I created a web page for the Inquirer called “Built,” which organizes all our design, planning, development and transit content onto a single page, and cuts through the barrage of content on the home page. I would have never have come up with that idea had it not been for my Loeb experience.

The fellowship has also had an effect on my writing. Even though I said that what I learned in the theory classes isn’t translatable to a daily newspaper, that intellectual training did make me conscious about situating my columns in a larger discussion, and I like to think that’s given my more heft.

Are you in touch with any of the fellows?
All of them. We still get together and party whenever we can. I spent Memorial Day weekend with two of my fellow classmates who live in the northeast.

Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? Did you always aspire to be a journalist or critic?
I’m a child of Levittown, so maybe living in a planned community had a subconscious effect on my decision to write about places. Growing up, I didn’t know anything about architecture or planning. And even though I wanted to be a newspaper reporter from a very young age—I ran my Girl Scout newspaper—I had no idea there was such a thing as an architecture critic. I don’t recall any courses in criticism being offered when I was a student at NYU (though I’m sure that’s changed). I had read a lot of Hemingway as a teenager and developed a real wanderlust, so when I was young, all my focus was on becoming a foreign correspondent. I studied French and did a junior year in Paris. After that I decided to stay in Europe and work as a journalist. I spent three years abroad before returning to work for the New Jersey paper. Even after I managed to make my way to Philadelphia and a job at a big-city paper, the idea of being an architecture critic didn’t come to me until quite late. I didn’t figure out what I wanted to do with my life until I was 40.

What do you like most about living in Philadelphia?
I feel like Philadelphia is one the few authentic cities remaining in America. I love New York and consider myself an ex-New Yorker, but sometimes I feel like it’s a big playground rather than a working place. There isn’t a concentration of super-rich people in Philadelphia, and of course there is much more poverty. You get on a city bus at 8 in the morning, and you see people going off to their jobs, taking kids to school, interacting with their neighbors. It’s big and dense enough to be sophisticated in its aspirations and have a rich cultural life, but it’s also very intimate and cozy. People are crazy about block parties and neighborhood rituals here. Because Philly has a lot of tightly-packed rowhouse neighborhoods, I sometimes feel like it’s the world’s biggest small town. I have a web of connections I can’t imagine having anywhere else in America.

What/where is your favorite building?
I hate that question. It’s like asking a parent, which is your favorite child. I’ll just say that my visits to Kahn’s Salk Institute and his Kimbell Art Museum were probably the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had. Both are transcendent buildings. I was also blown away last year when I went on a Borromini scavenger hunt in Rome (inspired by my Harvard class). I don’t think I have ever seen a more powerful urban building than San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane. It shows how much architecture you can pack into a tight site. There’s something about it that is so modern.