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Ada Louise Huxtable, RIP

by Emily Esfahani Smith

Posted: Jan 08, 2013 11:36 AM

We mourn the passing of the great architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, a friend of and contributor to The New Criterion.

From the Wall Street Journal

Over a career that began in the 1950s, Ms. Huxtable produced a body of criticism as influential and widely read as any other architecture critic's.

She pioneered the position of architecture critic in American newspapers when the New York Times NYT -1.62% appointed her to the post in 1963. Ms. Huxtable was the first winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, in 1970, and was architecture critic of The Wall Street Journal since 1997.

"She was a great lover of cities, a great preservationist and the central planet around which every other critic revolved," said Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture. "Developers were terrified of her."

And here is the New York Times on Huxtable's passing:

Ada Louise Huxtable, who pioneered modern architectural criticism in the pages of The New York Times, celebrating buildings that respected human dignity and civic history — and memorably scalding those that did not — died on Monday in Manhattan. She was 91. 

Beginning in 1963, as the first full-time architecture critic at an American newspaper, she opened the priestly precincts of design and planning to everyday readers. For that, she won the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, in 1970. More recently, she was the architecture critic of The Wall Street Journal.

“Mrs. Huxtable invented a new profession,” a valedictory Times editorial said in 1981, just as she was leaving the newspaper, “and, quite simply, changed the way most of us see and think about man-made environments.”

At a time when architects were still in thrall to blank-slate urban renewal, Ms. Huxtable championed preservation — not because old buildings were quaint, or even necessarily historical landmarks, but because they contributed vitally to the cityscape. She was appalled at how profit dictated planning and led developers to squeeze the most floor area onto the least amount of land with the fewest public amenities.

She had no use for banality, monotony, artifice or ostentation, for private greed or governmental ineptitude. She could be eloquent or impertinent, even sarcastic. Gracefully poised in person, she did not shy in print from comparing the worst of contemporary American architecture to the totalitarian excesses of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.

“You must love a country very much to be as little satisfied with it as she,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a United States senator from New York, wrote in his preface to a 1970 collection of Ms. Huxtable’s writings, “Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?”

It was the first of several books whose titles alone conveyed her impatient, irreverent tone. These included “Kicked a Building Lately?” (1976) and “Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger” (1986).

Though knowledgeable about architectural styles, Ms. Huxtable often seemed more interested in social substance. She invited readers to consider a building not as an assembly of pilasters and entablatures but as a public statement whose form and placement had real consequences for its neighbors as well as its occupants.

“I wish people would stop asking me what my favorite buildings are,” Ms. Huxtable wrote in The Times in 1971, adding, “I do not think it really matters very much what my personal favorites are, except as they illuminate principles of design and execution useful and essential to the collective spirit that we call society.

“For irreplaceable examples of that spirit I will do real battle.” 

In 1982, she wrote a very important essay for The New Criterion on "The tall building artistically reconsidered":

The skyscraper and the twentieth century are synonymous; the tall building is the landmark of our age. As a structural marvel that breaks the traditional limits on mankind’s persistent ambition to build to the heavens, the skyscraper is this century’s most stunning architectural phenomenon. It is certainly its most overwhelming architectural presence. Shaper of cities and fortunes, it is the dream, past and present, acknowledged or unacknowledged, of almost every architect. From the Tower of Babel onward, the fantasies of builders have been vertical rather than horizontal. Frank Lloyd Wright, caustic critic of cities, could still project a mile-high skyscraper; when the Futurists proclaimed an energetic new world it was in the form of streamlined, soaring towers. These flamboyant visions, full of pride and prejudice, have released architectural talents and egos from the rule of reason and responsibility.

But the question of how to design the tall building has never really been resolved; it continues to plague, disconcert, and confound theorists and practitioners alike. The answers were first sought in models of the past, which were later rejected and then still later rediscovered, carrying reputations up and down with vertiginous regularity. At any point in the cycle, the arguments have an air of messianic conviction fueled by equal amounts of innocence and ignorance. In the final analysis, the results are controlled less by any calculated intent than by those subtle manipulators of art and ideas—taste, fashion, and status.

Read the rest of the essay here.

Also, when The New Criterion's founding editor Hilton Kramer passed away in the Spring, Huxtable wrote a brief and moving tribute about her "irreplaceable friend" for the magazine, whom she credits with launching her career:

Our paths crossed again in the 1970s, when I was the architecture critic of The New York Times and he was its chief art critic. We worked together for almost a decade and he continued to be my unfailing, outspoken champion against the occasional misguided efforts of some uncomprehending editor and the inevitable protests from commercial developers.

I have an enormous sense of professional gratitude mixed with great personal affection for Hilton Kramer, a man who could be extremely kind and helpful or eloquently irascible if his honesty, integrity, or most cherished opinions were involved. We were poles apart politically, but that never affected our shared principles and my admiration for the ideals he set for himself and others, and the arts for which he always had an impeccable, infallible, and demanding eye. My memories are of his high intelligence, uncompromising standards, and unstinting approval of those he thought did their work well. He was an irreplaceable friend.

May they both rest in peace.  

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