We’re entering mid July, which means the weather is hot and the Phillies are running out of time to turn their season around, among other things. In today’s Q&A, we chatted with our architecture critic Inga Saffron to learn how she approaches critiquing the city’s design and space, and how she tackles projects as large as the new Comcast Technology Center (the finishing touches on that building are coming in August with the opening of the Four Seasons hotel). Further down, learn how you can make a refreshing summer salad that uses brown rice as the main ingredient.
Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with Inga Saffron, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who writes about Philadelphia’s ever-changing infrastructure and architecture.
You’ve been the Inquirer’s architecture critic since 1999, and the city has changed quite a bit in that time. What has changed most about your job over those two decades?
I used to have the field all to myself! Now there are half a dozen blogs and websites covering aspects of my beat. In the early 2000s, no one in Philadelphia was writing about the intersection of architecture and urbanism. The city was still in pretty bad shape financially and physically, and you would hear people predict that, “Philadelphia will become the next Detroit.” This was back when Detroit was used as a shorthand for urban failure. Many respected policy-makers, and even some elected officials, didn’t believe the city’s buildings and urban form were worth worrying about because they didn’t believe the city had a future. If someone wanted to build a giant garage next to City Hall — which a developer did actually propose — planners would say, “Well, beggars can’t be choosers.” When I would argue that Philadelphia was a great city that deserved better, people would treat me like a crank.
Now almost everyone — planners, developers, elected officials — thinks like an urbanist to a certain degree. I used to be considered an extremist because I was arguing that the city needed to become less car-centric, when others were saying the city needed to imitate the suburbs. What’s amazing to me now is that I’m a relative moderate on issues of parking and density. There is a new generation that is more demanding and extreme on those issues than I ever was.
What’s one thing architecture critics think about when considering a new building or project that the average passerby might not?
Because I’m a critic who reports, I spend a lot of time interviewing architects, developers and their clients about the conditions and constraints that inform their designs — everything from funding issues to bad soil conditions. Many people think a design springs full-blown from an architect’s head. But architecture is a team effort and requires many hours of study, research and planning. I don’t think people realize how collaborative architecture is, or how many variables inform the design.
Where do you start with a project like reviewing the new Comcast Technology Center, something that literally and figuratively looms large over the city?
In this case, I started out with a lot of institutional memory. I covered the design process for the first Comcast tower, as well as several projects by the developer, Liberty Property Trust. That gave me a context for understanding and evaluating Comcast’s new building in relation to its previous tower. I’ve been pretty obsessed with the architecture of tech, so when I was in London last year I arranged to tour the new Bloomberg headquarters, knowing it would be a baseline for my Comcast review. Not only does Bloomberg’s business have some overlap with Comcast, its new building was designed by Norman Foster (the same architect who designed the Comcast Technology Center). I’ve also read everything I can about the new Apple headquarters, another Foster building.
I had all that background in my head when I visited the new Comcast building. I went on three separate tours, two with John Gattuso of Liberty and one with (Comcast CEO) Brian Roberts. It’s a big building, so there was a lot to take in. Plus they were still wrapping up construction when I visited. There’s a lot of spin during these tours, where people tell you how you’re supposed to think about what you’re seeing. It’s very intense! I always go back on my own so I can spend time with the building with no one whispering in my ear. I don’t have the same access as I would on a formal tour, but I’ll just sit in the lobby and watch people interact with the space. I’ll wander the public areas in the same way as any ordinary Philadelphian might, and walk around the site a couple of times. Since Comcast is such a presence on the skyline, I also spent time visiting different neighborhoods to see how the tower looked from a distance.
What areas of the city or region are you hoping to explore for your column in the future?
I want to spend more time writing about the less-covered places in the region — the Northeast, Upper Darby, Frankford, Camden, older towns in the suburbs.
Keep in touch with Inga by following her on Twitter at @InaSaffron or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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