Thursday, November 11, 2010

Building a Better City for Everyone

Many people may not always agree with her opinions, but what I think most people can appreciate about Inga Saffron isn't just her obvious compassion for this city, her yearning to see a better Philadelphia, but the way she addresses her subject from the honest perspective of the audience.

Architecture critics, especially when paired with art critics, have an annoying habit of intellectualizing their subject matter and preaching to their audience. Architecture is public art. It's not tucked away in a museum and there isn't an admission fee. Whether you're in New York, Paris, Tokyo, or Philadelphia, the honest to god truth is that 99% of a building's audience won't care about the technique that makes it good or bad, only that they have to look at it and want it to be pleasant.

Many critics preach to their readers, assuming that they are versed in artistic jargon. They pretentiously ignore the rest, letting them either blindly agree or assume that they are simply too stupid to get it. Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times comes to mind.

Inga Saffron isn't an architect and doesn't pretend to be. Perhaps that helps. She's viewing these buildings from the sidewalk like the rest of us. She isn't analyzing blueprints or searching the archives for obscure references and trends. When she cites history as part of her perspective, she cites local icons with which most of her readers are at least vaguely familiar. Her style is conversational and engaging. She loves Philadelphia for the same reasons we do.

While other critics send us to a thesaurus, she sends us to the streets. She isn't writing a column to advance her career, she's writing about this city because she wants to see a better Philadelphia. And whether her audience always agrees with what she says, she succeeds either way by inspiring a better vision and higher standards in her readers.


My mother compared her to Ayn Rand, obviously with specific regard to the Fountainhead. While Inga Saffon rarely expresses politic opinions in her column, I have a feeling her's may differ significantly. Nonetheless, there is an overall theme of objective idealism in her critiques that helps her readers envision how a city should work. If she's Ayn Rand, she's the best of her.

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