Ada Louise Huxtable at her New York apartment on March 7, 1974.
Image Courtesy Dorothy Alexander
Everyone has a favorite quote from the architecture critic par excellence, Ada Louise Huxtable. A pithy one dates to 1973: “The let-them-eat-travertine perfectionism of SOM superstar Gordon Bunshaft is seldom less belligerently antihuman these days,” she wrote in the New York Times about an office building in New York. Huxtable, who died of cancer on January 7 at 91, brought architecture criticism visibility and influence at a crucial time. In the boom years after World War II, the banality of commercial Modernism, the demolition of historic buildings, and the destruction of the urban fabric dominated the formation of the man-made environment. The Times, where Huxtable was named architecture critic in 1963, provided her a vehicle with horsepower, and her frequency of delivery guaranteed a readership. But more important, she brought to the post a distinct commitment to research and an insight into complex issues, plus the ability to present a solid argument in a forthright, tell-it-like-it-is style.
Her emphatic, no-nonsense writing style, restrained by elegant diction and laced with alliteration, was arranged with a sense of rhythm that remained throughout her career. “This is a beautiful building that does not compromise its contemporary convictions or upstage the treasure inside. And it isn’t alchemy. It’s architecture,” Huxtable concluded about Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia last May in the WSJ.
An American pragmatism guided Huxtable’s approach: she felt the critic needed to be flexible and, as newer truths emerged, to address that reality. Her attitude placed her well within the unrecognized tradition of architecture criticism in this country’s newspapers and magazines, epitomized by Montgomery Schuyler in the 19th century. After Schuyler joined the New York World in 1868 (working there until he went over to the Times from 1883 to 1907), he attacked the new, eclectic architecture being built for lacking expression of function, honesty of materials, and sincerity of style. But since Schuyler wasn’t called an architecture critic nor necessarily given a byline, he became better known by writing for Architectural Record, founded in 1891. Later, in 1931, Lewis Mumford helped battle clichéd Classicism and advocated organic-functional ideals as the “Sky Line” critic for the New Yorker. Here he built the weekly column into one of great influence by the time he stepped down in 1963. However, Mumford saw his true calling as writing epic tomes on subjects such as city planning and technology.
To be sure, Huxtable published books, yet newspaper criticism was her forte—with its quick-on-the-draw timing directed to a general readership of powerful and influential people (as well as normal folk). She couldn’t put an end to bad buildings, although she helped save good ones. And she kept the debate going. In the very month she was appointed architecture critic at the Times, her stinging diatribe appeared on the planned destruction of McKim, Mead & White’s Penn Station (May 5, 1963). As she wrote, “Architects’ inhumanity to architects surpasses understanding, particularly when the earlier ones are dead. It’s a good way to kill off a city, as well.” Tellingly, the final essay of her life, published in the WSJ on December 3, 2012, focused on another archicide: Foster + Partners’ plan for Carrère and Hastings’s New York Public Library (1897). She will be very much missed.