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Ada Louise Huxtable
by Michael J. Crosbie
When she died on January 7, Ada Louise Huxtable, America's first full-time architecture critic to write for a newspaper, went out the way she came in. She joined the New York Times in 1963 and a half-century later she continued to write intelligent and at times lacerating architectural criticism for the Wall Street Journal. In her last published piece, she heaped scorn upon architect Norman Foster's scheme to gut the stacks of the landmark New York Public Library. It was published three weeks before her death at the age of 91.
Huxtable made architecture a household word. While earlier writers had written about architecture on an occasional basis in newspapers and in elite outlets such as the New Yorker, Huxtable made it part of daily conversation.
In the decade following her arrival at the Times, newspapers around the country began to hire their own full-time architecture critics—such as Paul Gapp at the Chicago Tribune. In 1970, Huxtable won the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, and went on to win a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship in 1981.
Huxtable viewed architecture not just in terms of style and aesthetics, but as a living, breathing manifestation of what a culture valued. No single building really mattered to Huxtable — she was interested in how groups of buildings, urban spaces, street life, neighborhoods, sunlight, air, and materials came together to create a place. She wrote about how politics and money shaped architecture. Huxtable approached architecture not as a refined art above the fray of the everyday, but as the spice that gave the built environment its flavor.
Huxtable came of age as a writer as Modern architecture became the style of the corporate establishment after World War II. But several Modern architects wished they had never picked up a pencil after Huxtable was through with them. Edward Durell Stone, designer of the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, was one of them.
Huxtable pronounced the Kennedy Center "a great marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried," a building that only Albert Speer could love. According to architecture writer Suzanne Stephens, who teaches architectural criticism at Barnard and Columbia, Huxtable was careful not to become pals with the designers whose work she wrote about. She kept a professional distance and was independent in her criticism. This was a shock to architects such as Stone, who thought they could charm her into less stinging assessments of their work.
Huxtable was an early and vocal supporter to historic preservation, and wrote passionately condemning the destruction of architectural landmarks such as the old Pennsylvania Station in New York.
In one Times piece, "The Art of Expediency" she compared a photo of a beautifully carved stone angel from Penn Station's facade, dumped in the New Jersey Meadowlands, with a photo of a grimly banal subway entrance in the new Penn Station.
Huxtable's message is not that it's a shame that we're willing to throw out the architecture of the past in exchange for something functional yet uninspired. She cautions that you cannot create the values or the reality of the past simply by re-creating the architecture of the past.
Huxtable is alarmed that we are willing to accept the esthetics of economics, that architecture no longer has a role in lifting our spirits, in celebrating our humanity. She warns the reader that we get the cities we deserve, cities with a "landscape of alienation" that we are willing to build and live in.
Ultimately, the promise of the art of building, for Huxtable, "…is not in the individual structure as traditionally designed, but in the relationships of people, land, and buildings for life and use—it is in the esthetic and human ferment that is currently called architecture."
Huxtable was one of the few (along with earlier writers about architecture, such as Lewis Mumford) who never lost sight of architecture's ultimate purpose: to edify, to inspire, to make whole, along with accommodating the scope of everyday life, both domestically and civically.
This is Huxtable's most important legacy as an architecture critic. She made her readers want better architecture, even if they often didn't get it. It's still worth writing about.
In a 1957 article entitled "The Park Avenue School of Architecture", Ada Louise Huxtable wrote of the Lever House (1952) by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM, "Lever Brothers' trend-setting green glass tower ... established the vogue for glass walled buildings and was soon flanked by imitations." She reviewed many of New York's great Modernist marvels throughout her decades-long career. Photo: Courtesy Library of Congress
Over two weeks before Foster + Partners released this and two other renderings of the modification plans for the library, an impatient Huxtable wrote "... I no longer feel I must see these drawings no matter how skillfully they address the plan. They will undoubtedly be functional and handsome in Foster's trademark high-tech manner. However, after extensive study of the library's conception and construction I have become convinced that irreversible changes of this magnitude should not be made in this landmark building." — "Undertaking Its Destruction," Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2012 Image: Foster + Partners
Huxtable lauded the then-recently completed Boston City Hall as "... a structure of dignity, humanism, and power. It mixes strength with subtleties. It will outlast the last hurrah." — "Boston's New City Hall," New York Times, February 4, 1969. Photo: Donald Corner & Jenny Young / Artifice Images
"Ford will never give most New Yorkers anything except this civic gesture of beauty and excellence, and that is a grant of some importance in a world where spirit and soul are deadened by the speculative cheapness of the environment." — New York Times, November 26, 1967 Photo: David Owen / Artifice Images
"The East Wing brought Washington the integrated experience of modern art and architecture, establishing the fact of the 20th century's esthetic and structural achievements in the nation's capital." — "Pei's Elegant Addition To Boston's Arts Museum", New York Times, July 12, 1981 Photo: David Owen / Artifice Images
Of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Edward Durrell Stone, Huxtable wrote, "The building is a national tragedy. It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried." But she also tempered her critique with this insight, "If Mr. Stone has been aiming for an architecture that all America can love, he has found it. This is architectural populism. He has produced a conventional crowd pleaser. It is a genuine people's place." — "A Look at the Kennedy Center, New York Times, September 7, 1971 Photo: Kevin Matthews / Artifice Images
Ada Louise Huxtable's famous dislike for the 2 Columbus Circle building was not tempered with time, as she wrote in 2008, "My reservations about the architectural worth of Edward Durell Stone's 2 Columbus Circle in New York ... and the case I made for its conversion by the Museum of Arts and Design after a long period of deterioration and neglect, have been blown off by preservations in nostalgic cry for the impossible and unreasonable. The name 'lollipop building' from my original description of it as a 'little die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops,' has stuck, even if my arguments haven't, and may prove to be my only claim to immortality. As a case history, however, it is a perfect example of how wrong the preservation movement is going today in its evaluation of the buildings of the recent past." Photo: Renate O'Flaherty and Wikipedia user "Ken"
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