Ada Louise Huxtable: History

There are some fine architecture critics, don’t get me wrong; Huxtable is simply our best. Part of the reason (but only part) is longevity. It’s no small thing for a critic to operate at the top of her or his game and maintain the professional gold standard for close to 50 years. Others burn out, indignant that the field has not yet reformed itself, or start quoting themselves, surrendering to benign toothlessness and toadying to power. She remains eagle-eyed, surveying the big picture with her talons sharpened.

One of her rarest attributes is that she is not in anyone’s pocket or in any political-aesthetic camp. Much of what passes for architectural criticism today is narrowly fixated on two dozen “blue-chip” names: the top 12 international stars and the 12 hip up-and-comers. The local critic bemoans the failure of his city to employ more of the big names, reviews with a yawn the latest museum extension, and spends the rest of the time flying around the globe to catch the debuts of new buildings by said 24. The longer the locals fail to heed his recommendations to hire the cutting-edge architects he admires (some of whom are his friends and cronies), the more petulant and querulous becomes his tone. Huxtable has been around too long to trust the quick-fix auteurist solution or to allow herself to be used as a shill for the avant-garde; she knows too well how suavely developers smooth the way for their plunder by including a blue-chip architect’s name in the plans, thereby getting the design community to salivate, roll over, and play dead.

Another of her rare attributes is that she is concerned not only with the look of the building but how well it fits into its surroundings, and how suitable and comfortable it will be for those who have to use it. Huxtable was one of the first to champion historic preservation, celebrating the multilayered aesthetic of the New York City street in her early books Classic New York and Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City, and in her columns for the New York Times, where she served as the architecture critic from 1963 to 1982. An avowed Modernist and anti-nostalgist, Huxtable simply saw no reason to tear down a handsome old building that supplied invaluable texture and memory for a mediocre, ugly, overscale one. She has always understood “context” in the broadest sense, not as some fuddy-duddy Po-Mo quotation but as a way of maintaining the vitality of the street, street-wall, and neighborhood web. Her criticism of the recent Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle is that it “kills the street and standardizes the shopping experience with a giant indoor suburban mall of monumentally homogenized upscale ennui.” I sense that younger architectural critics are growing restive having to keep paying deference to the street or having to scold the “narcissism” of a new structure if it means shackling the artistic freedom of their heroes. Huxtable is daringly skeptical of some of the new “drop-dead forms” proposed for buildings: “structures that lean and loop do not give us a sense of security or suggest pleasure on a human scale.” She dubs them “acrobatic exercises in computer mathematics that only an architect could love.”

What sets Huxtable above all other critics is her writing style. It is bold, plain-spoken, funny, clear, communicative, and eloquent. These virtues, rare in themselves, appear even more maverick amid today’s architecture criticism, which has settled for the most part into an elliptical mannerism where meaning seems always tantalizingly to be receding just out of reach. Picking up a piece of architectural criticism, the general reader expects to be toyed with, condescended to, and teased in a maddeningly suggestive dance of the seven veils that reads like a mixture of Walter Benjamin and a public-relations release. One gets the sense that many architecture critics are writing more for their peers or ex-professors than for their readers. I’m not saying the game of allusive opacity can’t be fun; I’m only saying that Ada Louise Huxtable doesn’t play it.

For decades fans have been collecting Ada Louise’s zingers. She famously called Edward Durell Stone’s 2 Columbus Circle building “a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops” when it opened in the 1960s, and it has had a hard time living down that description ever since. In 1971 she described the Kennedy Center as “a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried.” She has lost none of her forthrightness and vinegar in her current post at the Wall Street Journal. Here she is on the West Side stadium debacle, pulling no punches: “…there is something profoundly wrong with the city’s planning policies. To put it plainly: There are none; there are no land-use principles, no guiding priorities, no design guidelines where they are needed. Construction projects, often of enormous size and impact, are developer generated and initiated, within a narrow spectrum of private interest, and the bigger they are the better the city seems to like them.”

While other architecture critics are inclined to fetishize the breakthrough building-object, and only reluctantly and timidly permit themselves to be drawn into broader issues of city and regional planning, Huxtable has no fear of taking on these matters. Moreover, she has an articulated vision of what sort of planning is in the public’s best interests and the pedagogical vigor to put it across: “A stadium should never—repeat, never—be built on the Midtown Manhattan waterfront; this is a flagrant violation of everything we know about urban land use. It is axiomatic that you do not put industrial-size blockbusters in uniquely desirable locations; they destroy an enormous potential for profit and pleasure.”

The savvy New Yorker is only one of Huxtable’s literary personae. She is also the scholarly historian who can write a biographical gem like her most recent book, Frank Lloyd Wright, which synthesizes mounds of research into a 250-page clear-eyed, elegantly written summary of the man and his achievement. But you cannot pigeonhole a mind as complex as Huxtable’s. Attracted as she is to past monuments, she is just as alive to the present moment, the now. In lauding the new MoMA (“The design is driven by the rationality of its plan and its response to its surroundings, essential factors that have taken a back seat to today’s obsession with drop-dead forms”), she can’t help but balance her praise with some negatives. “But we yearn for more than a cloakroom and gift shop in the cavernous entrance; the atrium cries for the really big gesture—even Barnett Newman’s ‘Broken Obelisk’ becomes a decorous gesture that ceases to alarm. This requires a powerful, perception-altering work, a site-specific creation that deals fearlessly with the scale—something new, provocative, and outrageous—a naughty newcomer that must wait to be judged worthy enough to be invited in.”

It’s her hungry, girlish hope for something new and naughty and outrageous that is really astonishing at her age; and it underscores that continuing openness and energetic receptivity that have kept Ada Louise Huxtable being the best we have.

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