The woman who “made architecture matter” shaped the urban scene of New York for decades—all with a fearless flair
Ada Louise Huxtable was one of the most powerful voices in architecture in the 20th century. Architecture critic of the New York Times in the 1960s and ‘70s, she carried enormous weight, securing or sinking architectural reputations, challenging or thwarting projects, shaping the taste and values of the public throughout the country.
Her thunderous prose resonated loudly through the canyons of the city—crisp, hard-hitting, but elegant writing that aroused admiration, contempt, or just plain awareness of buildings she deemed significant. Architects, developers, and city officials quaked in fear of her verdicts. A 1968 cartoon in the New Yorker early on in her journalistic career depicted two construction workers pouring over blueprints, one of them exclaiming, “Huxtable Already Doesn’t Like It.” Already, her name was a household term. At her memorial on June 4, 2013, Frank Gehry echoed this sentiment, recalling, “I wanted her attention, but I was scared of it…. She was tough, but her words were beautiful.”
She never minced them. Words like “shoddy,” “half-baked,” “spineless” were part of her style. She loved alliteration, rhythm, cadence, above all an attention-snapping, knockout punch line. Zingers aside, typically her essays bore, too, a take-away, an insightful truth. She wrote without contrivance, using words carefully and parsimoniously, preferring the short and simple to the multisyllabic and verbose—a disciple here as elsewhere of Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more.” She said much with little, loved writing, and did it with flair.
A Passion for Building
But for Ada Louise Huxtable, writing was only a tool. Her passion was architecture and the built environment. Born in 1921 and raised on New York’s Upper West Side, she grew up an only child in a middle-class Jewish family, her father a doctor, her mother artistically inclined; they lived comfortably in a stately 1906 Beaux-Arts building facing Central Park until her father died when she was eleven—as Ed Nilsson has pointed out, during the Depression leaving the family facing difficult times. She loved roaming the streets, which proved invaluable experience, seeing and absorbing not only the buildings lining the streets of the city, but the ordinary activities that gave them vitality.
Graduating from Hunter College in New York in 1941, where she’d majored in art, she worked at Bloomingdale’s in the furnishings department where she met her husband, industrial designer Garth Huxtable, whom she married the following year. She pursued graduate work at the Institute of Fine Arts, but left without getting a degree, and in 1946 secured a job at the Museum of Modern Art in the department of architecture and design, then under Philip Johnson. His quick intelligence, keen eye, and sharp wit she respected, but his convictions about architecture she soon found shallow. She nonetheless learned a great deal—about Mies, whose retrospective she worked on, about modernism, connoisseurship, assessing quality in art, and how to address, educate, and inform the public simply, clearly, without condescension. Here she developed the discerning eye and critical astuteness that served her so superbly throughout her career.
In 1950 a Fulbright enabled her to pursue the study of postwar Italian architecture. During this time she met Bruno Zevi, who exerted a powerful influence on her thinking, especially his views on architecture as space. In 1958 a Guggenheim provided the means to study structural developments in American architecture. In 1960, she wrote her first book, on the Italian engineer Nervi as part of a series published by Braziller; from this she gained a healthy respect for the structural logic of building, which she considered basic to good architecture.
In 1961 she was asked to write a guidebook on modern architecture in New York City, by which time her own definition of architecture was clear: aesthetics were essential, but only part of the equation, as structure and function mattered. So too was the urban dimension. Fearless despite her petite stature and while still a fledging in the field, she had no qualms in taking on Walter Gropius, the pioneering modernist then at the peak of his career, chiding him openly for his collaboration on the Pan Am Building, which threatened dire consequences for the urban environment.
Politics, Preservation, and Postmodern Phonies
Huxtable’s concern for quality paralleled her growing campaign for preservation. Galvanized by the demolition of Penn Station, her work in preservation gained momentum with the publication of Classic New York. Georgian Gentility to Greek Elegance (1964). Disillusionment with the growing preservation movement, however, set in quickly, and by 1966, she was voicing concern that the city was turning into a moribund museum filled with ersatz brand-new “old” or “reconstructed” buildings and phony look-alikes. Here were the roots of her book, Unreal America. Architecture and Illusion (1997), a diatribe against postmodernists as well as the preservationists she thought more concerned about profits than quality, denouncing the fakery and make-believe she found in both.
She wrote scores of essays—on new buildings, proposed buildings, bad buildings, threatened buildings, as well as emerging architects, fresh trends, new movements, architectural exhibitions—invariably grounded in painstaking research, and informed not just by matters architectural but real estate, developers, urbanism, local commercial interests, and most importantly politics.
Still more grants followed: in 1970 a Pulitzer for distinguished criticism, a decade later a MacArthur grant, which freed her from the grueling deadline-driven pace of the daily newspaper and allowed her to address subjects of her own choosing and pursue them in depth. Often disdainful of academics—a scorn that grew scathing in the heyday of postmodernism, as she found their prose turgid, verbose, incomprehensible, and at times simply silly—she envied their ability to devote time to scholarly research in depth.
Denouncing postmodernism, she saw much more promising the new architecture of Rafael Moneo, Alvaro Siza, Christian de Portzamparc, Tadao Ando—their names alone demonstrating her increasingly global reach and her respect for what she saw as the enduring values of architecture: form, space, and light, manipulated to create places that mattered as much for what they did and how they functioned as how they looked.
Making Architecture Matter
Fiery to the end, Hutxtable wrote a trenchant essay on the proposed remodeling of the New York Public Library a month before she died. More than just a plea to save the old library, it was a passionate outpouring of deep love for the city, and for the challenge she saw in making its rich architectural heritage an integral part of “its dynamic vitality and brutal beauty.” Clear here is her appreciation of the ordinary, utilitarian, as well as awe of splendid architectural accomplishments, her respect for the city’s past, but also its future to which she remained open, welcoming change, recognizing it was simply part of the historical process. To Robert Venturi’s complexity and contradiction, she would add continuity and change, all part of living heritage of the present.
As Paul Goldberger, her successor at the Times, so simply and eloquently put it, she made architecture matter to us all.
These comments are drawn from my essay on Huxtable written for the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, and from my remarks as chair of the Ada Louise Huxtable session at the annual Society of Architectural Historians meeting in Austin, Texas, in April 2014.