Ada Louise Huxtable, who died last week at the age of 91, liked good buildings. She didn’t care what style the designer used, she had very little patience for theory, and she wasn’t waiting for utopia. She just wanted structures that were well made, respected their environments, delighted us with inventive spaces, and otherwise enhanced our experience of the human-made world, and especially of the urban environment. As she once said, “If there are any basic ground rules for architecture-watchers, they should be, first, don’t look for something pretty; and second, look again.” Once those structures appeared, Huxtable wanted them to endure and to continue to be used, rather than being torn down or misused.
Her prose reflected her position. It was by no means fancy. She liked short, declarative sentences, but not in the assertive manner of Esther McCoy. The founding full-time architecture critic for the New York Times (between 1962 and 1982), her language stood in service of what she was trying to say, and so it did not always follow the Chicago Manual of Style or even Microsoft’s dicta against passive voices or sentences over a few words long. She used adjectives as often as she pleased. Huxtable was not a stylist, but a critic who wanted to, and more often than not did, convince us of what was good and bad about the built environment.
During her long career of writing, which started when she became a Contributing Editor at Progressive Architecture in 1950, before moving to the New York Times in 1962, then the Wall Street Journal in 1997, Huxtable saw and wrote about it all. She appreciated modernism and Postmodernism, though the latter with more reservations. She came to love the work of Frank Gehry (she called him “the most staggeringly talented architect that this country has produced since Frank Lloyd Wright”), though she hated his influence on museum boards looking to build the next Bilbao. She stood by architects she thought were good, and with buildings, such as the Boston City Hall, that were not exactly popular. But she was also not afraid to criticize them, as she did in her last piece, which took Norman Foster to task for what she felt was a misguided renovation plan for the New York Public Library. She said, it “is about to undertake its own destruction.”
Huxtable certainly had her favorites, and some of them made and still make you scratch your head. Was the East Wing of the National Gallery really such a great piece of either urbanism or museum architecture? I certainly fail to see the merits in the work of Christian de Portpzamparc, architect of the LVMH Building on 57th Street, she found in many of his designs. She enjoyed the complexity of his responses to specific activities, ignoring the messy and unresolved qualities in most of his work. Even there, whatever judgments she made, she backed them up with a clear line of reasoning, descriptions of specific highlights, and a large message about why we should care about her choices.
Huxtable, born in 1921 in New York and raised there, was in all these ways the quintessential American critic in the pragmatic tradition. She took no abstract positions, saying only: “What matters is whether this work serves and satisfies us, in the personal and societal sense, and ultimately, how this process engages and reveals necessity and beauty in the visual language of our time.” What was good was so in a relative manner, in relation to social conditions, existing context, effect produced, and lasting value. You could know that value through experience more than anything else, which is why eyewash facades and theory was of so little interest to her. “Kicked a good building lately?” was her famous question and title. For her ability to fulfill that position in article after article, especially in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Yorker, she won the first Pulitzer for criticism in 1970.
What is more important is that she was one of the few critics who had an effect in the new world, helping a wide audience, including the kind of decision-makers that read the publications for which she worked, to understand what good architecture is. She enhanced that power through her membership on the Pritzker Award jury and by gaining the ear of the worthy and the mighty. Without Huxtable, our designed environment, especially in Manhattan, would not be as good as it is today, and that alone makes her long life well worth remembering and appreciating