The architecture world celebrates critic and writer Ada Louise Huxtable’s 100th birthday on March 14. She won’t be there to see it, having died at 91, after spending her career changing the way we think about architecture.
For Huxtable, architecture was not just about how a building looked, but about how it affected the city around it. And as one of the most influential and avidly read architecture writers in the U.S., she made others see it that way, too.
She spent 20 years as the New York Times’ first full-time architecture critic. She won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism in 1970. She won a Fulbright, a Guggenheim, and a MacArthur Fellowship. She served as the first woman on the jury for the Pritzker Prize.
Huxtable also won the love of a popular audience, who looked forward to her weekly column about architecture, which pulled no punches. A 1968 New Yorker cartoon showed a worker at a construction site telling the architect “Ada Louise Huxtable already doesn’t like it.”
When Huxtable died in in 2013, the Getty Research Institute was just about to announce its acquisition of her archive. Sadly, the announcement was hastily rewritten as an obituary.
I sat down with Maristella Casciato, senior curator of architecture and design, and research assistant Gary Riichirō Fox to talk about Ada Louise Huxtable, her archive, and her legacy.
Maristella Casciato: Ada Louise really educated herself. She began a graduate program in architectural history, but she never graduated. She then started working at the Museum of Modern Art in the Architecture and Design Department in 1946, at the age of 25. That was really her education.
She received a Fulbright in 1950 and went to Italy in the middle of the postwar reconstruction plan supported by the US government. Her experience in the field served as the foundation for an exhibition in 1954 documenting the modern movement in Italian architecture and design.
Gary Riichirō Fox: She started freelancing for The New York Times and other publications soon thereafter. In 1963, she was hired by The New York Times as the first full-time critic of architecture in any newspaper in the United States.
MC: She was writing a Saturday column on architecture for The New York Times. I heard from friends that there was an eagerness on Saturday mornings to go to the breakfast table and read Ada Louise Huxtable. She was a household name.
Julie Jaskol: She was not necessarily very gentle in her criticism.
MC: The issue is not about her being polite—she had a kind of American pragmatism. Her job was a mission. Her job was to let truth emerge.
GRF: She was recognized for her principled set of beliefs around architecture. It wasn’t a question purely of aesthetics, but a principled understanding of the financial, political, economic entanglements of architecture—how architecture relates to cities, cityscapes, and communities.
JJ: Her archives are relatively new to GRI, so I imagine that there’s still a lot to unearth.
GRF: It’s quite a large archive. She was incredibly prolific. She published almost daily for decades. We see a great opportunity in making this large archive more accessible, especially digitally.
JJ: Is there anything emerging for you?
GRF: There are a number of interesting avenues we’ve begun to pursue. I think the fact that we keep using the words “first” and “only” is evidence that she was exceptional, but also speaks to the structures that made her unique: structures of exclusion and barriers to entry. Why was she the only woman on the Pritzker committee?
We also see her transition from an interest in architecture’s form to architecture’s political and urbanistic commitments, and we see a parallel expansion of the discipline to increasingly include a study of how architecture relates to everyday life. An older model of the architectural critic would have been that of the connoisseur who says, ‘this is good and that’s bad.’ She quickly moves away from this model and toward a form of public journalism where she understands her political efficacy very clearly.
MC: Another aspect that I think could be interesting is when Columbia established the Buell Center for American Architecture, she was the key figure, together with Canadian architect and historian Phyllis Lambert. They were both at the foundation of this extremely important center that gave a voice to young scholars devoting their work to American architecture, at the time still a young field. We have all the minutes of the meetings — someone could write the history of architecture’s institutionalization and the emergence of Americanism.
JJ: What does Ada Louise Huxtable mean today?
MC: She tells us that when you look at architecture, it’s not the style that matters, rather it’s what it means for the people who live their daily lives in that environment.
GRF: I remain astounded at the quality, clarity, and vividness of her writing. At her core she was an incredible writer, someone whose subtle wit could make you laugh out loud, someone who makes you say, “Oh, that’s a wonderful phrase. Let me take note of that.”