Reactor

Rereading Ada Louise Huxtable: 5 Essential Pieces

by Jillian Steinhauer on January 9, 2013

Ada Louise Huxtable, photographed in the 1960s by her husband, L. Garth Huxtable (image via Architizer)

Ada Louise Huxtable, photographed in the 1960s by her husband, L. Garth Huxtable (image via Architizer)

On Monday, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable died at the age of 91. In her career, Huxtable was a force of nature: Writing architectural criticism for the New York Times starting in 1963, she became the first full-time architecture critic at an American newspaper. (According to a Washington Post obituary, Times assistant managing editor E. Clifton Daniel created the position with her in mind.) Two years later, she was an important player in the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission for New York City. In 1970, she won the first ever Pulitzer Prize for criticism, and she went on to serve as the architecture critic at the Wall Street Journal from 1997 until her death.

It was these achievements and more that led the Journal to call her the “dean of architecture critics.” Paul Goldberger captured some of her importance to the field and to the wider world in a moving 1996 tribute, in which he called her “the most important figure in communicating the urgency of some kind of belief in the values of the man-made environment in our time. … She has made people pay attention. She has made people care. She has made architecture matter in our culture in a way that it did not before her time.”

As with any critic, however, the best way to get to the heart of Huxtable is to read her writing itself. It’s there that one begins to understand her passion, persuasiveness, and power. To that end, we’ve compiled five of her most significant pieces available online — a primer, if you will, on Ada Louise Huxtable, or for those who’ve already read them, a revisiting and a tribute.

1. “Farewell to Penn Station,” New York Times, October 30, 1963 (plus related reading: “Architecture: How to Kill a City,” New York Times, May 5, 1963):

Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.

2. “Sometimes We Do It Right,” New York Times, March 31, 1968:

When it is good, this is a city of fantastic strength, sophistication and beauty. It is like no other city in time or place. Visitors and even natives rarely use the words urban character or environmental style, but that is what they are reacting to with awe in the presence of massed, concentrated steel, stone, power and life. It is a quality of urban greatness that may not solve racial or social tensions of the human or economic crises to which a city is prone, but it survives them.

3. “The tall building artistically reconsidered,” The New Criterion, November 1982:

Today’s tall building is a puzzling and paradoxical package. Its standardized, characterless, impersonal space creates the recognizable, charismatic monuments and the enduring image of twentieth-century cities. For better or for worse, it is measure, parameter, or apotheosis of our consumer and corporate culture. No other building type incorporates so many of the forces of the modern world, or has been so expressive of changing belief systems and so responsive to changing tastes and practices. It romanticizes power and the urban condition and celebrates leverage and cash flow. Its less romantic side effects are greed and chaos writ monstrously large. The tall building probes our collective psyche as it probes the sky.

4. “The Empire State Building’s Luster Returns,” Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2011:

An iconic image is about much more than the brutal breaking of scale. Architecture transforms and fixes a city’s identity; symbolic architecture is more than a conspicuous addition.

5. “Undertaking Its Destruction,” Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2012

This is a plan devised out of a profound ignorance of or willful disregard for not only the library’s original concept and design, but also the folly of altering its meaning and mission and compromising its historical and architectural integrity. You don’t “update” a masterpiece. “Modernization” may be the most dangerously misused word in the English language.

For another remembrance, read current Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman’s take on Huxtable’s importance to the path of criticism.

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