Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ada Louise Huxtable, 1921 - 2013

By Charles Kessler
Ada Louise Huxtable with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, in 1970, when she won the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism. (Photo: Librado Romero/The New York Times.)
Ada Louise Huxtable became the first architecture critic for the New York Times in 1963 — the first architecture critic anywhere for that matter. In 1970 she won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the first such award they ever granted, and in 1981 she won a MacArthur Fellowship.  The Washington Post published an excellent obituary here.
Update: a better obituary, i.e. one that agrees with me, just came out in The New Republic.

Prior to her writing about buildings, newspapers would just print the press release puff provided by the developer; but, to her credit, and that of the Times (and to the dismay of developers), Ms. Huxtable could be harsh in her criticism. She had particular scorn for watered down, prettied up modernist buildings. She infamously called Edward Durell Stone's Kennedy Center in Washington a “national tragedy,” and wrote that Nazi chief architect “Albert Speer would have approved” of it. And Stone's museum on Columbus Circle that housed Huntington Hartford's collection of bad art, she called “a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops.” It became derisively known as the lollipop building ever after. (It's now the radically resigned Museum of Design — see Huxtable's balanced critique here.)
Edward Durell Stone's 2 Columbus Avenue before and after redesign by Brad Cloepfil.
She was not only concerned with the aesthetics of a building but also its civic responsibility; as such she fought to save Penn Station and other historic buildings, and was an influential ally of people like Jane Jacobs who were fighting against Robert Moses for the life of urban areas.

I believe that how a building addresses the street is more important than how the building looks (not that they're mutually exclusive), and in this I disagree at times with her and other architecture critics. Cities are hurt far more by bad city planning than they are by bad architecture. Sometimes great architecture can be overpowering, even desolate; as a result they can be street-life killers. Case in point, look at two of the buildings Ada Louise loved most:
 Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles, Boston City Hall and Plaza
I. M. Pei, East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C. .


Dixie Redmond said...

Quote of Ada's that is interesting "And right here I part company with those who believe that copies and replicas are acceptable substitutes for the real thing. Once the original is gone or beyond salvation you are faking it; when it's lost, let it go and move on."

Interesting to think about.

Charles Kessler said...

Absolutely, Dixie. "Facadism" — demolishing a building and leaving its facade intact for the purposes of building new structures in it or around it, ridiculous as that may be, is better than fake old. At least it is what it is.