Champion of New and Old
The critic whose passion and insight changed the way we look at the built world.
Last month, the world of architecture lost the best critic of our time. Ada Louise Huxtable set the standard for architectural journalism, not only because of her many firsts–first architecture critic for the New York Times, hired in 1963; first cultural critic to win the Pulitzer Prize, in 1970–but because of the powerful influence of her voice, both on the public and on writers who followed her. The digging and research that informed her opinions is legendary: her articles were built on deep layers of knowledge about design, engineering, history, zoning laws, financing, real-estate deals, politics, and, most important, what she saw as the social contract at the heart of most building ventures. To be with Ada Louise (never Ada!) was like reading one of her essays–she was elegant, erudite, sophisticated, fearless, tough, and witty. Through her articles in the Times, and later in the Wall Street Journal, she taught generations of readers how to look at architecture and understand the urban realm.
While we were preparing this issue of RECORD on renovation, addition, and adaptive reuse, we couldn't help but think about Huxtable. A modernist by inclination, she championed the work of a wide range of architects–James Stirling, I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry. But she was often a fierce preservationist, and believed that the history revealed through a variety of buildings and public spaces–shifting, aging, and adapted over time–was essential to the vibrant texture of cities. “I am devoted to the principle that every age produces its greatest buildings in its own image,” she wrote. “Ultimately, it is the addition and absorption of this continuous record of changing art, technology, ideas, and uses that make cities the unique repositories of the whole range of human endeavor.”
Because history and modernism are hardly incompatible, she was delighted when, in 1975, the Museum of Modern Art seemingly changed its institutional course by mounting a show of 19th-century architectural drawings from the École des Beaux Arts. It was the style with which she'd grown up in New York, haunting such great Beaux-Arts temples as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library. The library building “made no pretense at chumminess; it was intended to impress,” she wrote. “A sense-expanding spatial sequence from the arched and colonnaded portal to more marble and massive stairs and the richly detailed rooms inside provided both grace and grandeur and suggested that man might be noble, after all. Or at least, that he knew quality from junk.”
In her last article, published one month before she died, Huxtable went to the mat to protest the extensive alterations currently planned for that un-chummy and impressive librarythat she loved so much.
But frequently, Huxtable encouraged change and the marriage of old and new. We're not sure how she would have ruled on designLAB's glass addition to Paul Rudolph's library in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. But we think she would have liked the idea of turning a Brit-built Edwardian police station in Shanghai into a design emporium by Neri&Hu, or a Baroque building on an old square in Ljubljana, Slovenia, into crisply contemporary apartments. When she reviewed the opening of Lincoln Center in 1966, the only building she didn't damn with faint praise was Eero Saarinen's Vivian Beaumont Theater–“a design of strong, sculptural good looks that offers, with its fronting pool and Henry Moore sculpture, the only honestly contemporary vista in the place”–and she probably would have applauded Hugh Hardy's discreet addition to it. She cheered the work of architects who may not be noble, but who clearly know quality from junk.