Book Reviews - Winter 2009

A Passion for Architecture

Nuggets from a critical gold mine

By Stanley Abercrombie | December 1, 2008

On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change, by Ada Louise Huxtable, Walker & Co., 496 pp., $35

Ada Louise Huxtable is always a delight to read—unless, of course, you’ve designed a building she doesn’t like. Even in those circumstances, you’re likely to learn something that can make your next building (should you have the temerity to design another) a better one, for her strong opinions are informed ones. Educated at Hunter College and the Institute of Fine Arts, a division of New York University, she began her working life as an assistant curator in architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. (Working for Philip Johnson, she has said, she was “charged with finding a new ‘ism’ weekly.”) Then she studied in Italy on a Fulbright fellowship, where she gathered material for her first book, a monograph on architect-engineer Pier Luigi Nervi (in Braziller’s Masters of World Architecture series, 1960). Other early efforts include a slim but priceless little paperback prepared for MoMA and the Municipal Art Society, Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City; and Classic New York: Georgian Gentility to Greek Elegance, the first of six projected volumes progressing chronologically from the Georgian and Federal styles to modernism. (The fact that the other five never appeared is the only apparent setback that can be detected in a long and glorious career.) She joined The New York Times in 1963 as a full-­time architecture critic, the country’s first. She stayed there for almost 20 years and earned a Pulitzer for distinguished criticism (the first ever awarded) in 1970. Guggenheim and Mac­Arthur grants followed, as did service on the juries of the Pritzker Architecture Prize and Japan’s Praemium Imperiale.

Her columns have been anthologized before, in Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?, Kicked a Building Lately?, and Architecture, Anyone? (Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger was a one-volume reissue of the first two). The great value of this new collection, despite a bit of repetition, is that, rather than presenting articles from the most recent decade, it represents Huxtable’s thinking from all phases of her career. There are 68 examples from The New York Times, 34 from The Wall Street Journal, where she is currently a regular contributor, and three longer pieces from The New York Review of Books. There is also an excerpt from one of her non-anthology books, The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style. The new book therefore is not only a valuable summary of the career of the most impressive observer of architecture and the most compelling writer about it since John Rus­kin, but also a valuable summary of a roller-coaster half century of architecture in transition.

As she writes,

Looking back, I realize that my career covered an extraordinary period of change, that I was writing at a time in which architecture was changing slowly but radically—a time when everything about modernism was being incrementally questioned and rejected as we moved into a new kind of thinking and building. And while it was a quiet, nearly stealth revolution, it was absolutely a revolution in which the past was reaccepted and reincorporated, periods and styles ignored by modernism were reexamined and reevaluated. History and theory, once considered irrelevant, became central to the practice of architecture again.

The pros and cons of this “new kind of thinking and building” is the chief story that the book tells, and it is told, as it can only be, in the context of Huxtable’s knowledge and beliefs. First of all, through all its triumphs, doldrums, and resurgences, she has been a devoted believer in modernism. A section of the book (for it is organized thematically rather than chronologically) is “Modernism and Its Masters.” Here we find subsections on Le Corbusier (his Carpenter Center at Harvard University “violates the street and scandalizes the neighborhood” but “manages to make everything around it look stolid and stale”); Mies van der Rohe (“an innovator and talent of Michelangelesque stature”); Alvar Aalto (“incapable of a cliché or a stereotype”); Louis Kahn (whose designs never “ape the mannerisms of the past. The past is just there, through the architect’s remarkable, extremely personal, and very passionate love of all that is logical and beautiful in building, at all times.”); Walter Gropius (his 1937 house for himself, designed in collaboration with Marcel Breuer and given by his widow to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in 1975, being “as much a period statement as any Bulfinch treasure. It meets the same standards of style, significance, and authenticity. . . . This is indeed the kind of history that changed the world”); and Frank Lloyd Wright (“Designed and driven by its setting, Fallingwater fills the mind and the senses”).

Huxtable is less enthusiastic about others. Edward Durell Stone is admired for his early work, including the co-design of the Museum of Modern Art, but his Kennedy Center in Washington is a “glorified candy box,” his General Motors Building in New York is “Furniture Store Posh,” and his “little seraglio” for Huntington Hartford’s Gallery of Modern Art at Columbus Circle is “a provocatively misplaced pleasure pavilion transplanted from some Shalimar garden to a Manhattan traffic island.”

Philip Johnson’s 1978 AT&T tower “is an interesting building, for all the wrong reasons. It is fascinating to see just how far it is possible to stretch a weak idea.” Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates’s Sackler Wing, housing the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum, got it wrong too: “The Egyptian temple is tiny and delicate, and the Sackler Wing is big and barren. It is like putting a desert flower in a gymnasium. Poverina.” Sometimes the title tells it all, as in “Pan Am: The Big, the Expedient, and the Deathlessly Ordinary.” And in at least one case her choice of epithet seems eerily prophetic: while they were under construction, she wrote that the twin towers of the World Trade Center “could be the start of a new skyscraper age or the biggest tombstones in the world.”

Some architects get a sampling of both praise and rebuke. A 1979 appraisal of Michael Graves greatly admired his designs on paper, but had reservations about them as potential architecture: “The transformation of Graves’s subtle and painterly collages of ideas, references, textures, and colors to important three-dimensional buildings is something one awaits with a mixture of hope and fear.” And Marcel Breuer, lauded for his Whitney Museum in 1966 (“uncompromising standards, sophisticated expertise, and thoroughly professional excellence”) fell from favor two years later when he accepted a commission to design a tower over Grand Central Terminal. In an article not included here, but worth quoting anyway, Huxtable wrote: “Give a grotesquerie to a good architect and you are going to get a better grotesquerie, like a better mousetrap. Mr. Breuer has done an excellent job with a dubious undertaking, which is like saying it would be great if it weren’t awful.”

Yet, despite her powerful advocacy of modernism and her sharp criticism of it for its apostasies, she can be broad-mindedly receptive to new directions. Although it seems fair to say that the postmodern challenge to modernism was her bête noire, she greatly admired the book that gave it whatever theoretical legitimacy it could claim: Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Archi­tecture. And here is her opinion, despite some acknowledged quirkiness, of Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown’s 1977 addition to Cass Gilbert’s Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio: “The solution is successful in the justness and appropriateness of its visual, functional, and programmatic relationships, which is the test of good architecture at any time. Taste and judgment are the eternal elite verities that do the job.”

Also, for all her passion for modernism, Huxtable has been equally passionate about historic preservation—for modern masterpieces, of course, but also for earlier achievements in other styles. In these essays she pays her respects to Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Edwin Lutyens, Daniel Burnham, Holabird and Root, McKim, Mead & White, and more. But perhaps her most deeply caring article, chronicling the end of a cause for which she had fought tirelessly but unsuccessfully, was written in the summer of 1966: “Pennsylvania Station succumbed to progress this week at the age of 56 after a lingering decline. The building’s one remaining façade was shorn of eagles and ornament yesterday, preparatory to leveling the last wall. It went not with a bang, or a whimper, but to the rustle of real estate stock shares. . . . Now dreams of urban glory and broken Doric columns lie shattered in the Secaucus meadows.”

She can not only make us feel a great loss when a fine building is demolished, she can make us see how valuable it is when a fine new building goes up. To her readers she conveys her own sense of architecture’s fundamental importance: “Architecture is remaking our world. Its rewards are personal and universal in a way no other art can match. Its joys are common to us all.”

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