A Conversation with Ada Louise Huxtable

As Phillip Lopate writes, Ada Louise Huxtable is simply our best. But she’s also a formidable woman of firsts: the first architecture critic to write for a daily newspaper, the first journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, the first design writer to be awarded a Macarthur fellowship. She set the standard in 1963 when she joined the New York Times (a job she lobbied mightily to create) and has served since 1997 as critic for the Wall Street Journal. The author of several books—her most recent, Frank Lloyd Wright—Huxtable is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Recently I spoke to the 84-year-old critic by phone from her house in Marblehead, MA about architecture and the role of critics today.

What’s the current state of architecture criticism today?
I think it’s come a long way. When I started, my chief concern was that nobody really knew what architects did, or that what they did affected them in any way. Everybody knows that now. I used to fight the Times. Every time they’d write a story about a big building and not name the architect they’d get a blistering memo from me. It was as if the buildings sprang out of the ground, anonymous.

Has mainstream America’s increasing awareness of design changed the role of the critic?
You’ve got to define your responsibilities a little more carefully. It was a pretty simple campaign when I started. It was to raise awareness, to establish what the art of architecture was, to establish some understandings of its effect on the environment, to establish quality. All that now is a given. So then the critic is free to establish how he wants to work, what he wants to emphasize, and that’s an enormous responsibility. Today there’s too much emphasis on chasing celebrity buildings and not enough about the basic context of architecture.

When you sit down to write, do you have an ideal reader in mind?
No, I think that’s a mistake. You write from a sense of general responsibility. If you’re a journalist—and I was never trained as one but I’m a journalist now through and through—you’re working for a news organization. You must decide—and this is why journalism is always subjective—what you think is important for the public to know and understand. And if you’re a responsible journalist or critic, you try to frame this in a very broad way. You don’t just project your own ideas and prejudices.

Do critics have an influence?
The answer to that is: none. [Laughs] Seriously, the answer to that is as complicated as the question. It’s one of those Sisyphean battles of rolling the rock uphill all the time and having it roll back down and hit you. Even if you can’t measure influence, if you care enough, you have to keep trying.

How do you go about reviewing a building? Do you have a set of rituals to get familiar with the building before you pass judgment on it?
Before I write or even visit—particularly if it’s not in my own city—I do a lot of research. I am a historian. I’m interested in background. I’m interested in the factors that influence how a building finally turns out. So I talk to people. There’s no order. Sometimes I see the architect and go through plans with him first, or go through the building with him first. Sometimes I see the client first, or go through the building with them first. But every one of those bases has to be covered. You can’t rely on a set of rules or impressions. To write fairly and with full understanding about a building, you have to do a lot of work.

I find art and certainly political criticism far more rough and tumble than design and architecture criticism. Why is so much architecture criticism glorified cheerleading?
You’re absolutely right, and I’m glad it disturbs you, too. Having lost its sense of social responsibility, architecture must answer to something broader than just being the latest thing—edgy, trendy, chic. All this really turns me off. There’s something missing in architecture criticism today, which is a way of measuring the buzz against something bigger and more important. And there’s a kind of sycophantism. I find it kind of sickening, because so much is being missed that is important.

You’ve used the word “responsibility” a few times in our conversation. Talk about your views on social responsibility in architecture.
There are many forms of responsibility that are built into the art of architecture, because architecture must work for people. It has to do the appropriate things for the environment. It has to touch so many real issues that touch real people in the real world that when architects put themselves into the same category as artists who don’t care because they don’t have to, moviemakers whose movies may touch us personally but they have nothing to do with the way we live—-when architects put themselves into the same category as art personalities and ignore in every way that their art touches the world, it’s not socially responsible. It has a bad effect. A bad physical effect.

What do you make of the current celebrity architect-designed condo phenomenon? It’s not just in SoHo, but in places like Covington, Kentucky with Daniel Libeskind.
Are you surprised? Has anything changed? You know perfectly well that any developer who knows his bottom line is going to find any device that is going to give him a leg up. Now that there is celebrity in architecture, they find they can sell more, faster, if they have a name attached to it. It has nothing to do with patronage.

Do you have a favorite building?
No. It is such a pluralistic field. There are so many ways you can design and build, and I’m happy to say that there are enough great buildings that you’d go crazy trying to figure out which was your favorite. You respond in a different way to different architects and different problems. And that’s partly because I’m an architectural historian, and I never threw away Victoriana. I fought for Victorian buildings before anyone else did. Now that’s become a boomerang and turned around and hit us. Almost everything I fought for has been achieved in this peculiar way, and then it has turned itself inside out into something terrible!

You were one of the first modernists who talked about the preservation of older buildings. Now we’re in a different era where we’re discussing modern preservation. What are your thoughts on this campaign?
If there’s anything that really excises me, it’s the lack of knowledge, the lack of standards, being applied indiscriminately across the board to modern buildings. I get so upset about it. You know how I feel about 2 Columbus Circle? This was an example of how you had to balance good against bad, past against future, reuse against what would happen to the building. The preservationists proved not only incapable of discussing it, but went into paranoia mode. I think the whole movement seems to be doing that. Of course it was a complex issue but they should have been able to sort it out. And then to compare—you always get one crazy directing these things who has the quality of leadership—Ed Stone’s poor little lollipop building to the loss of Penn Station! They were really doing this! Although I did write in specific terms about 2 Columbus Circle, I haven’t gotten myself down out of the emotional response enough to write in general terms about modern preservation.

Are there areas of architecture and design that you’re currently excited about?
I am finding landscape architecture much more interesting than architecture now. It’s a frontier that is dealing with the environment in very humane and aesthetic and fascinating ways. I think the most important show we’ve had in quite some time was that exhibition at the Modern [Groundswell] last fall on landscapes and the people doing them around the world. At the moment this work leaves the ambitious navel-gazers of architecture in the dust, and it’s where real progress and humane social responsibility is taking place.

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