The Long View
The ne plus ultra of architecture critics, 90-year-old Ada Louise Huxtable is still turning her sage, often stinging pen on America's design landscape.
“Kicked a Building Lately?” asks the title of Ada Louise Huxtable’s 1976 book of architectural criticism, culled from her New York Times columns of the early 1970s. It’s a punchy and salient question, one that serves as a challenge to the reader, a rebuke to aesthetics-only criticism, and a telling glimpse of precisely how the now 90-year-old writer, currently ensconced as a critic at the Wall Street Journal, approaches her craft.
Giving a building a good skeptical kick, as you might the tires of an old car, serves as a larger metaphor for Huxtable’s critical tack. Her brand of journalism—one she once summarized as a persistent search for “quality, responsibility, and good sense”—asks not so much “Is this cool?” as “Is this necessary?” It’s an ethos Huxtable feels is increasingly lost in current criticism.
“We’re treating architecture too much as art alone. And it’s too much a part of our celebrity culture,” she says. “People’s eyes glaze over at the prospect of talking about architecture’s sociological roles, but that doesn’t have to be boring, and it’s absolutely essential to figure it in.” How worrying, then, that a current survey of the design press, particularly online, might well be titled “Dug a Rendering Lately?”
“You have to know about real estate, development, urbanism, local commercial interests, and of course architectural history,” she says of good architectural journalism. “You have to get so much information to be entitled to write a piece of architecture criticism.”
Information is precisely where Huxtable started. She was an art major at Hunter College and did graduate work in art and architectural history at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in her native New York. Her first job was as an assistant curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art. She also worked with her husband, the industrial designer L. Garth Huxtable, assisting him with product development and promotion, and had written about design before becoming the first full-time architecture critic for a daily American newspaper at the Times in 1963.
“When I started, very respected papers like the Times were simply printing publicity releases handed out by real estate companies,” she recalls. “I had the feeling that there should be a greater sense of entitlement amongst New Yorkers, that they should know more about what was going on in architecture and have more of a say in how it happens.”
She convinced her editor, Lester Markel, to give her a critical column, but before she could get into a piece of architectural criticism, he insisted that she first had to report the who, what, when, and why of the story as hard news. “I used to write three pieces on a single building: I’d report the news; then I’d do a little evaluation, an appraisal they called it, both for the daily paper; and then I’d write a more personal take in the critical column in the Sunday Arts and Leisure section.”
Huxtable’s column was instantly polarizing, and no shining new monument was too sacred nor any tatty old structure too humble to elude her pen. A great advocate for the best of the new and the best of the old, Huxtable was at the forefront of the push to save New York’s great buildings of the 19th century—“preservationists were just little old ladies in tennis shoes when I started”—while arguing for the very strongest contemporary buildings at the moment when the ascendant pizzazz of postmodernism was running roughshod over modernist orthodoxy.
One Sunday she might praise Richard Meier’s “superstyle” as having “an extremely disciplined interlocking of logic and art” and the next week fulminate about the demolition of Bernard Maybeck’s neoclassical 1915 Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. As she wrote in the New York Times, “For every Brooklyn Heights [she was for saving it], which preserves a historical continuity of real buildings of the real past, there are numerous projects that will put up brand-new ‘aged’ imitations mixed with a few dislocated victims of throughways or urban renewal for spuriously quaint little groups of instant history in sterile isolation.”
Huxtable wrote pointedly against the destruction of Penn Station: “The passing of Penn Station was more than the end of a landmark. It made the priority of real estate values over preservation conclusively clear.” And she lauded the flowering of downtown Brooklyn: “There is enough visible accomplishment in terms of design, development, and the creation and reinforcement of community and amenity for a dozen other cities.” Though it’s accurate to say that her great subject has been New York, her larger aim has always been the promotion of inventive, clear-headed buildings.
Her contemporaries took note, and in 1970, Huxtable was awarded the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, not just a nod to her talents as a reporter, historian, and critic but an affirmation of what a sustained, scrupulous look at the evolving urban landscape can mean to a city.
“Ada Louise, in short, made the field of criticism not just respectable but noble,” says another Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, architecture critic Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune. “She showed that the demands of daily journalism and the rigors of serious criticism are not incompatible.”
After 18 years at the Times, Hux-table, delighted to win a MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius grant”), left the paper to focus on writing books, which have ranged from a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright to investigations of two of America’s most aesthetically and ideologically opposed vernacular structures: the skyscraper and the ranch house. Her work on the ranch house is ongoing, though she anticipates the book should be finished and released at some point this year.
Huxtable now splits her time between New York and a home on the North Shore of Boston, where she continues her work contributing several essays each year to the Wall Street Journal.
“I don’t think you can separate the roles of the historian and the critic. Criticism without a background in history to me is extremely shallow and often meaningless. Besides,” she trills with girlish enthusiasm, “the research just keeps revealing!”
10 Things to Know About Ada Louise Huxtable
1. One of her more famous pans was of Edward Durell Stone’s Huntington Hartford Museum at 2 Columbus Circle. She called it a “die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops.” The zinger stuck. And it became known familiarly as the Lollipop Building.
2. The New Yorker ran two cartoons using Huxtable’s poisonous pen as the punchline. One, from 1971, shows a pair of fat cat developers standing in front of a tacky model anticipating her ire. The other, from 1968, is at left.
3. Two of Huxtable’s favorite contemporary architects are Rafael Moneo and Álvaro Siza.
4. She was married to the late industrial designer L. Garth Huxtable, who worked with such luminaries as Norman Bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfuss.
5. As a team, Garth designed and Ada promoted the glassware, china, and silver service pieces for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building.
6. In the third season of Mad Men, developers intent on building Madison Square Garden in downtown New York dismiss Huxtable’s criticism by tartly stating, “People know she’s an angry woman with a big mouth.”
7. Language maven and fellow New York Times writer William Safire credited Huxtable with coining the slur against lousy city planning “urbicide.” “I don’t think I came up with it,” she says. “But he said I did, and he’s the expert on that kind of thing.”
8. If Kicked a Building Lately? is not a zippy enough title for you, another volume selecting the best of her work is called Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger.
9. She met her husband at Bloomingdale’s, where she was selling modern furniture, at a special sale of winning designs that had come out of MoMA’s Organic Design competition. “He was furnishing his bachelor apartment and I sold him a piece of furniture, and he got me,” she told the New York Observer.
10. Huxtable was so taken with I. M. Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery of Art that in a rave review she called it “a good 20th-century building” then amended her appraisal to “a great 20th-century building” before finally arriving at “a great building for all time.”
(Editor's note: "The Long View" and its complementary piece, "10 Things to Know About Ada Louise Huxtable," were originally published in the March 2011 issue of Dwell.)