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Danya Henninger/Billy Penn

Inga Saffron’s Greatest Hits: The Inquirer’s architecture critic hates on Philly icons

The Inquirer’s Inga Saffron is one of the best in the business. She’s a Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic and has proven valuable enough to keep a newspaper job that doesn’t exist in almost every other market in this country.

She’s also reeeeaaaaally difficult to please. In the last 20 years, Saffron has expressed displeasure with lots of famous, sometimes beloved buildings and landmarks in Philadelphia. If you look her up in a Philadelphia Inquirer archive dating back to the early 80s, you’ll find 93 articles that contain “Inga Saffron” and “bland.” She’s also compared two different things to Pepto Bismol (the Symphony Building and the colors of LOVE Park).

So yes, Inga Saffron has given many, many equivalents of 1-star Yelp ratings to Philadelphia architecture. And at Billy Penn we enjoy pointing out 1-star Yelp ratings. For Saffron, we will make no exception. Here are some of the highlights of the many Philadelphia buildings and landmarks that — to use a favorite word of the architecture critic — Saffron finds a little too bland.

The Comcast Center

Saffron: “Beyond the building’s being top dog on the city skyline, and the 12th-tallest in America, what else can we glean about the rising media giant from the sleek contemporary design by Robert A.M. Stern and Graham Wyatt? Not as much as we might wish. …As the new headquarters for one of America’s biggest conveyors of information, it is an oddly uncommunicative presence.”

Tall and eco-friendly apparently weren’t enough. For what it’s worth, she’s cool with the designs for Comcast II.  

The Gallery

Saffron: “The Gallery has been seen as a primo example of how not to design a retail complex in an urban setting. The building is too monolithic, too monotonous, too introverted. Its design dates from the time when enclosed urban malls were heralded as the replacement for the traditional downtown shopping experience.”

Apparently a reference to the Gallery in a classic Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince song and its Chick-Fil-A weren’t enough to get Saffron’s seal of approval. She’s looking forward to the new East Market, though.

LOVE Park, circa its 2002 makeover

Saffron: “Views into the park are still blocked by a high wall on 15th Street, and there is still too much hard granite. The modest refurbishment by the architects, Synterra & Buell Kratzer Powell, was also badly executed. To block the skateboarders’ path, they installed an array of sickly pink concrete planters and trash cans. The intent was to pick up the pink in some of the park’s granite slabs, but they have taken the idea to extremes. It may be the first time in the history of park design that trash cans are a dominant visual feature.”

This column also contained her first comparison to Pepto Bismol, calling the changes LOVE Park’s “Pepto-Bismol-tinted makeover.”

The new plans for LOVE Park

Saffron: “Right now, Hargreaves’ proposals still have the feel of a generic restaurant menu. For your first course, you can choose the square lawn, the half-circle lawn, or the Z-shaped lawn, then follow with a square fountain or a triangular fountain, a round planting bed or a rectangular one. These are just options. A finished design is when choices are made and everything comes together. The real essence of landscape architecture, that magical quality that separates a Rittenhouse Square from a grass playing field, is starting to emerge only now.”

Maybe Saffron would have preferred the beer fountain filled-with-sharks proposal. I certainly would have. Don’t worry, though. Saffron is a fan of the Flying Saucer visitor center in the park.

Dilworth Park

Saffron: “The vast granite prairie is still very much a plaza, with all the weaknesses the word implies. …Dilworth’s new comforts, which won’t be complete until November, are undermined by an uptight and controlling sensibility.”

Fair to say that pretty much everyone thinks this place still feels more like a “plaza” than a “park.”

The Kimmel Center, Citizens Bank Park, The Linc, National Constitution Center, Liberty Bell Center, Independence Visitor Center

In December 2004, Saffron went H.A.M. on pretty much every major new structure that had been developed in the city since 2001 in a piece titled “The Bland New Face of Philadelphia.”

Saffron: “What conservative and cautious tastes they are! While American cities large and small have embraced imaginative civic designs that push the boundaries of architecture and delight the eye, Philadelphia has stuck with stock forms and familiar materials for its public buildings. Given a once-in-a-generation chance to distinguish itself with design, Philadelphia instead showed a preference for the prosaic. Taken as a group, the six members of Philadelphia’s architectural class come across as fusty and provincial.”

Digital billboards

Saffron: “A Philadelphia taxi ride used to be one of those luxurious indulgences where you could escape, however briefly, from your over-scheduled life and spend a few precious minutes staring out the window, lost in thought. Now every trip begins with a backseat television screen laying claim to your eyeballs. At least you still have the option of hitting the off button.

If a bill sponsored by Councilman Mark Squilla is put to a final vote later this month, the mere act of walking through the streets of Center City will become a lot like a cab ride, but without the off button.”

For someone who criticizes so many parts of this city, Saffron seems inordinately pleased by the “luxurious indulgence” of a Philadelphia taxi.

The IKEA on Columbus Boulevard

Saffron: “But beyond the address, it’s hard to see what distinguishes Ikea’s Philadelphia store from its 20 suburban showrooms. The vast blue shed bobs in an asphalt sea. Like many Ikea stores, Philadelphia’s is a member of an exclusive “power center” that features an archipelago of big-box retailers, including Lowe’s and Best Buy. Ikea’s front door is located far, far back from Columbus Boulevard. That street is at least graced by sidewalks; there are none around the back, where SEPTA’s Route 7 bus stops.”

Would love to see her thoughts on the Columbus Boulevard Target.

The Symphony House

Saffron: “Except to those who resolutely averted their eyes during construction, it won’t come as news that Symphony House is the ugliest new condo building in Philadelphia. The 32-story mixed-use tower flounces onto venerable South Broad Street like a sequined and over-rouged strumpet. Sheathed in a sickly shade of pink concrete, the building resembles, as one blogger wittily observed, a giant Pepto-Bismol bottle. If only it were possible to look away.”

This is probably the “War and Peace” of Saffron’s criticisms. Also: in two columns since this was written in 2007, she’s reminded readers of how Symphony House resembles Pepto Bismol. That reference can never be forgotten.

All of Philadelphia

Saffron: “This is not a city of statement architecture and icons.”

Skyline photo by Danya Henninger

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