Everyone has a favorite quote from the architecture critic par excellence, Ada Louise Huxtable. A pithy one dates to 1973: “The let-them-eat-travertine perfectionism of SOM superstar Gordon Bunshaft is seldom less belligerently antihuman these days,” she wrote in the New York Times about an office building in New York. Huxtable, who died of cancer on January 7 at 91, brought architecture criticism visibility and influence at a crucial time. In the boom years after World War II, the banality of commercial Modernism, the demolition of historic buildings, and the destruction of the urban fabric dominated the formation of the man-made environment. The Times, where Huxtable was named architecture critic in 1963, provided her a vehicle with horsepower, and her frequency of delivery guaranteed a readership. But more important, she brought to the post a distinct commitment to research and an insight into complex issues, plus the ability to present a solid argument in a forthright, tell-it-like-it-is style.
Huxtable, who grew up in New York City, did not just appear at the Times desk out of nowhere. After going to Hunter College, she undertook graduate work in architectural history at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. From 1946 to 1950 she served as an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art’s architecture and design department, then led by Philip Johnson. A Fulbright in Italy in the early 1950s helped her produce an exhibition and a book on Pier Luigi Nervi. Even before her appointment to the Times, Huxtable had written some 60 freelance articles for the paper from 1957 to 1963. Being prolific helped; not surprisingly, when she joined the Times’s editorial board in 1973, she continued a Sunday column on architecture. By 1970 her talents had already won her the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism (of any discipline) in newspapers. Although Huxtable left the Times in 1982, after receiving the MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 1981, her achievements remained legendary. While the writer’s pace slowed to six times a year when she was architecture critic from 1997 through 2012 at the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), she still kept her audience talking.
Her emphatic, no-nonsense writing style, restrained by elegant diction and laced with alliteration, was arranged with a sense of rhythm that remained throughout her career. “This is a beautiful building that does not compromise its contemporary convictions or upstage the treasure inside. And it isn’t alchemy. It’s architecture,” Huxtable concluded about Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia last May in the WSJ.
An American pragmatism guided Huxtable’s approach: she felt the critic needed to be flexible and, as newer truths emerged, to address that reality. Her attitude placed her well within the unrecognized tradition of architecture criticism in this country’s newspapers and magazines, epitomized by Montgomery Schuyler in the 19th century. After Schuyler joined the New York World in 1868 (working there until he went over to the Times from 1883 to 1907), he attacked the new, eclectic architecture being built for lacking expression of function, honesty of materials, and sincerity of style. But since Schuyler wasn’t called an architecture critic nor necessarily given a byline, he became better known by writing for Architectural Record, founded in 1891. Later, in 1931, Lewis Mumford helped battle clichéd Classicism and advocated organic-functional ideals as the “Sky Line” critic for the New Yorker. Here he built the weekly column into one of great influence by the time he stepped down in 1963. However, Mumford saw his true calling as writing epic tomes on subjects such as city planning and technology.
To be sure, Huxtable published books, yet newspaper criticism was her forte—with its quick-on-the-draw timing directed to a general readership of powerful and influential people (as well as normal folk). She couldn’t put an end to bad buildings, although she helped save good ones. And she kept the debate going. In the very month she was appointed architecture critic at the Times, her stinging diatribe appeared on the planned destruction of McKim, Mead & White’s Penn Station (May 5, 1963). As she wrote, “Architects’ inhumanity to architects surpasses understanding, particularly when the earlier ones are dead. It’s a good way to kill off a city, as well.” Tellingly, the final essay of her life, published in the WSJ on December 3, 2012, focused on another archicide: Foster + Partners’ plan for Carrère and Hastings’s New York Public Library (1897). She will be very much missed.