There are just a few full-time architecture critics left at national and metropolitan newspapers in the U.S. But as Robert Campbell, long-time architecture critic for The Boston Globe, noted: “We’ve survived without architecture critics in the past — and will do so again.”
With the rise of highly-local and specialized blogs and Facebook pages examining all aspects of design and development, architecture critics may indeed go the way of the dodo. But it will be a loss for us all.
At the National Building Museum, Campbell and Inga Saffron, architecture critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, both Pulitizer Prize winners, were given the Vincent Scully Prize for their role in elevating public discourse on the built environment. They are influential voices who have not only shaped the debate in their own cities but have also informed other communities around the world.
Here are some highlights from a panel discussion led by Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for The Chicago Tribune.
On the rapid pace of urban redevelopment:
“Cities have really changed over the past twenty years. Before, the fear was Philadelphia would become the next Detroit and go into free fall, but now there is too much construction and the fear is gentrification.” — Saffron
“Banks and developers are now driving architectural forms. Architects have become an afterthought. They have so little control; I feel bad for them. The heroic architect myth is not reality.” — Saffron
“Developer-driven buildings aren’t very good. There are three firms that do about 90 percent of buildings in Boston. Redevelopment work is built quickly to minimal standards.” — Campbell
On the importance of place:
“I write about places, not buildings. There is an art to making great places. A great place can be a bedroom, lawn, neighborhood, city, or region.” — Campbell
Kamin then asked both Campbell and Saffron to name a great place.
For Campbell, a prime example is Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, which has “rows of homes dressed up in their tuxedos,” and for Saffron, Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, “which is permeable and enables you to flow through.” (see images above).
On Washington, D.C.:
Saffron, who is known for her cutting critiques, had nothing good to say about the new NoMA district:
“It looks like the world’s biggest office park. They will likely run out of window patterns eventually. These buildings maximize every inch of floor space. They are all the same shape. It’s dispiriting.”
But Campbell is a big fan of the Washington, D.C. Metro system, designed by architect Harry Weese. As Kamin remarked: “It looks like civilization — those concrete vaults.”
On their learning and writing process:
“If you don’t know what you are looking at, it forces you to look more closely.” — Campbell
“I’m a civilian, like every other citizen. We have a civic obligation to know how our cities are being built. I’m a big explainer. I don’t use jargon because I don’t want to lose my audience.” — Saffron
“I’m very embedded in a city. I’m a militant pedestrian and bicyclist. Walking and biking offers a more intimate pace. But dull stretches of streets will affect your whole mood.” — Saffron
“It’s easy to see the built world as a bar graph, a result of all these legal, financial, and political developments, nourished by bankers and developers deep in the caverns. But the physical environment merits its own evaluation, without looking at the subterranean forces.” — Campbell
And, lastly, advice for other writers of the built environment:
“Always go to the building or site. There is no substitution for being present. Renderings and photography can lie. See it with your own eyes.” — Saffron
“Inhabit the space. That’s the only way to see the relationships with other things — the context with other buildings and surroundings.” — Campbell