Arts - Spring 2013

Oracle in Pearls

Ada Louise Huxtable, able to depict a building in a few memorable words, set the standard for informed and fearless criticism

By Stanley Abercrombie | March 1, 2013


She was petite, pretty, and usually in pearls. She was also perceptive, eloquent, knowledgeable, wise, at times delightfully amusing, at others devastating, and for a large part of a century she elevated the quality, the common sense, and the conscience of American architecture.

Ada Louise Huxtable came to this eminence by being eminently qualified. Born in New York and educated there (Hunter College, New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts), she was then assistant curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. A Fulbright scholarship took her to Italy to study its architecture, resulting in 1960 in a short book on engineer and architect Pier Luigi Nervi, describing the “taut equilibrium and sensuous beauty of Nervi’s personal poetry of structure.” The next year came her small book Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City. In it her acumen and candor were already fully developed: the first building the book described was the Pan Am (later MetLife) tower behind Grand Central, then still two years from completion. “A $100 million building cannot really be called cheap,” she wrote, “but Pan Am is a colossal collection of minimums.” This “behemoth,” she added, “will radically alter the existing scale” of Park Avenue, “and its anti-social character directly contradicts the teachings of Walter Gropius, who has collaborated on its design.”

In the 1950s and early ’60s she was also a contributing writer for Progressive Architecture, Art in America, and ArtNews. A Guggenheim grant resulted in 1964 in another book, Classic New York: Georgian Gentility to Greek Elegance, proving that, though an enthusiastic modernist, she was also sympathetic to earlier styles. This was meant to be the first in a series of six books that would have continued chronologically up to New York Today: Modern Architecture, but the others never appeared, for Ada Louise (as we all called her, whether we had met her or not) had a new fulltime job, as architecture critic for The New York Times, a bully pulpit she occupied for almost 20 years.

Soon after her arrival at the Times came the news that McKim, Mead & White’s 1911 Pennsylvania Station would be demolished. “Not that Penn Station is the Parthenon,” she wrote, “but it might as well be because we can never again afford a nine-acre structure of superbly detailed travertine, any more than we could build one of solid gold. It is a monument to the lost art of magnificent construction, other values aside.”

The Penn Station controversy happened to coincide with my own first months as a young architect recently arrived in New York. How tragic it seemed that the great city might lose one of its greatest monuments, yet how exciting the controversy. Everyone talked of nothing else, and architects in particular felt a call to arms in Ada Louise’s indignant words. One lunch hour I took a subway across town to see a protest march in front of the station, and there marching among hundreds of others were architect Philip Johnson and Ada Louise herself!

She did more than write and march. Saving the station proved impossible, but in the wake of its demolition, and largely because of it, she was instrumental in the 1965 founding of the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is responsible for designating and protecting the city’s landmark buildings and districts.

Despite seeing the urgent need for preservation, she had no patience with modern architecture that made references to older styles. Reviewing Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles’s 1968 Boston City Hall, she noted with approval that this “tough and complex building for a tough and complex age” was “without a single one of those pompous pratfalls to the classical past that building committees clutch like Linus’s blanket.” Similarly, as the “airhead aesthetic” of postmodernism became widely fashionable, she accused it of being “a thin veneer of stagy style that mocks the history it pretends to recall.” In 1970 she received the first Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for her body of work so far.

By then I had begun writing reviews of architecture-related books and exhibitions for The Wall Street Journal, always holding Ada Louise’s fearlessness and mordant writing style as my (unreachable) goals. In 1973 Peter Blake, having just left his long editorship of Architectural Forum, started a new magazine called Architecture Plus and offered me my first job as an editor. Along with boxes of our precious first issue, Peter took his whole staff, all five of us, down to Washington to attend the annual conference of the American Institute of Architects. Our launch party under a tent behind some new office buildings at Lafayette Park was a lonesome affair indeed until Ada Louise, pearls and all, arrived to congratulate us. Meeting her for the first time, I found her a chair and someone else found her a glass of wine. Soon she attracted a huge crowd of architects who lined up to meet her, many of them looking at our issue while they waited and even buying subscriptions. Without the generosity of her visit, we might have died a quiet death.

A few years later, at the first of my much-too-rare lunches with Ada Louise, playwright John Guare was also present and the conversation was lively, but I have no memory of what we discussed. What I do remember is how pleasantly soft-spoken she was. Soft or not, she gave the clear impression that she did not suffer fools gladly.

Ada Louise would write eight other books, some of their titles suggesting the tone of their contents: Kicked a Building Lately? in 1976, Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger in 1986, Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard? in 1989, and The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion in 1999. This last, among her most heartfelt (and most disheartened) works, deplored the theme park-shopping mall replication of “a past that never was.” She wrote that “Preservation, development, and real estate have become a very comfortable ménage à trois, conspicuously in bed together. The savers and the spoilers have joined to give us a conceptual and aesthetic product that ranges from confusion to corruption, characteristic of no other place or time.”

There were also many articles, about a hundred for the Times alone, hour-long television interviews with Charlie Rose, membership on the jury for the Pritzker Architecture Prize, and ever-rising reverence for her opinions, except from some real-estate developers, who, Ada Louise said, would like to have her “head on a platter.” In 1981 she received a MacArthur “genius” grant.

A question she always dodged was what her favorite buildings were. She would say it didn’t matter. But, judging from her columns, they certainly included Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House, “particularly its spectacular use of space with its emphasis on openness in the midst of wall-to-wall congestion,” and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, diagonally across Park Avenue from Lever House: “Mies stands for discipline, and this is becoming a lost architectural virtue. He stands for logic, which is now a contortionist’s trick. He stands for style, in its highest and most valid meaning of the expression of standards and techniques of a particular historical time.” Of Eero Saarinen’s CBS Building, the “Black Rock” on Sixth Avenue, she wrote that it “does not look like a cigar lighter, a vending machine, a nutmeg grater. It is a building in the true, classic sense: a complete design in which technology, function and aesthetics are conceived and executed integrally for its purpose.”

And among her least favorites were Edward Durell Stone’s Huntington Hartford Museum at Columbus Circle, in perhaps her most-quoted description, “a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops”; Edward Durell Stone’s own East 64th Street townhouse covered with his trademark perforated sunscreen “on a façade which receives no sun”; and Edward Durell Stone’s Kennedy Center in Washington, “a national tragedy” and “a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried,” adding that Hitler’s architect “Albert Speer would have approved.” In summary she wrote, “Inside Edward Durell Stone there is an architect signaling to get out.”

As she had predicted shortly after the 9/11 attack, she watched the best ideas for the site being scrapped for mediocre ones. What had taken place, she wrote during the site’s redevelopment, was a “dyslexic process (everything backward) that made all the mistakes in the plan book and invented a few. … I do not believe for a moment that we are no longer capable of building great cities of symbolic beauty and enduring public amenity,” but “what ground zero tells us is that we have lost the faith and the nerve, the knowledge and the leadership, to make it happen now.”

Her last article, which may prove one of her most consequential, was published in December 2012 in The Wall Street Journal, where she had served as architecture critic since 1997. For it, as she liked to say and as she always did, she had “done her homework.” A long piece on the 1911 New York Public Library by Carrère & Hastings and current plans to remodel it to designs by Norman Foster, it is titled “Undertaking Its Destruction” and is full of information about how the building is constructed (seven floors of stacks supporting—literally—the famous Reading Room), how it functions, and how it serves its users. She concluded that the new plan was “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.” Then, as only she could, she tersely nailed it: “You don’t ‘update’ a masterpiece.”

Ada Louise died January 7 at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in the city where she had been born 91 years earlier and over which she had exercised profound influence. She left her estate (a penthouse apartment on Park Avenue and a house in Marblehead, Massachusetts) and her archives and those of her late husband, industrial designer Garth Huxtable, to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. This may surprise some who know her long love affair with New York, but Wim de Wit, head of the Institute’s Department of Architecture and Contemporary Art, says that her papers will join those of fellow writers Reyner Banham and Herbert Muschamp, architectural photographer Julius Shulman, and architects Pierre Koenig, John Lautner, Frank Israel, and Daniel Liebeskind, among others, and that they “will attract many scholars.” As they deserve to.

Ada Louise understood everything an architecture critic needs to understand: what was built 50, 500, and 5,000 years ago as well as what’s being built today, the difference between genuine architecture and pastiche, the way rising property values can trump architectural and civic values, and—most important and most rare—the complicated interactions among architects, engineers, planners, investors, community groups, government agencies, and developers. I loved Ada Louise. Everybody (except those developers and just maybe Edward Durell Stone) loved Ada Louise.

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