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Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-2013)

Ada Louise Huxtable made history as the first full-time architecture critic at a US newspaper when she joined the New York Times, and was later awarded the first Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1970

Ada lh

Ada lh

Illustration by Jonathan Farr

In the current fractured and fragmented American media landscape, it is amazing to think that the now near-extinct position of the public-facing newspaper architecture critic was created a mere half century ago for a tenacious young woman from New York’s Upper West Side. 

In 1921, Ada Louise Huxtable was born Ada Louise Landman in the city she championed all her life, to a Jewish family. Her father was a physician, her mother a scintillating wit. The story goes that the young critic grew up among the twisting iron fire escapes and blooming wedding-cake skyscrapers of New York, all the time quietly honing the eye of an expert flâneur. She attended Hunter College, where she studied art and graduated in 1941 with honours, before temporarily falling into the common narrative of the middle-class female college graduate of the day: she worked at a department store (Bloomingdales, that formidable institution), selling furniture. It was at that time she married an industrial designer, Garth Huxtable, with whom incidentally she designed some tableware for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). 

Alh ny [1]

Alh ny [1]Biography

Biography

Key works:
Pier Luigi Nervi, 1960
Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?, 1970
Kicked a Building Lately?, 1976
Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger, 1986
Architecture, Anyone?, 1986
The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered, 1993
The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, 1997
On Architecture, 2008
Frank Lloyd Wright: A Life, 2008 

Awards and honours:
Fulbright Award, 1950
Guggenheim Fellowship, 1958
Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, 1970

Quote:
‘All autonomous agencies and authorities, sooner or later, turn into self-perpetuating strongholds of conventional thought and practice’

Fortunately for architecture, Huxtable was not to remain a shop clerk. She began an ill-fated graduate degree at New York University before joining Philip Johnson at MoMA in 1946, in the Department of Architecture and Design. Huxtable worked three days a week as a research assistant, where she cut her teeth as a writer, speaker and curator. Johnson and his colleagues put much faith in her, making her an assistant on his exhibition of the work of Mies van der Rohe and later head curator of the first-ever American exhibition of the work of French architect Hector Guimard. 

As Mark Lamster notes in his biography of Johnson, The Man in the Glass House, the symbiotic relationship between Huxtable and her mentor would last for several years, until Johnson’s Postmodern turn, when she finally became a vociferous critic of his work. In between her time at MoMA and the creation of her position at the New York Times in 1963, Huxtable received both a Fulbright and a Guggenheim grant, and published her first book, on the Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi. 

Huxtable was not only one of the most important newspaper architecture critics, she was also one of the first, with the position at the New York Times being created specifically for her. Despite being a woman in a very patriarchal era and having to contend with a very patriarchal milieu, she had no trouble in harnessing her acerbic wit and insightful commentary to take well-aimed shots at some of the most important living architects and critics in the business. In her sights were luminaries such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Edward Durell Stone, and later the Venturis, Charles Jencks, Robert Stern and countless others. Huxtable’s words transfixed architects and the public alike. During a tribute held at MoMA after her death in 2013, Frank Gehry remarked, ‘Even though I think I wished for her attention, I was scared of it … She was tough, but her words were beautiful’. There are many similar encomiums. Rare is the critic that can strike such a balance between enjoyment and fear in the hearts of their subjects. 

‘Huxtable was able to advocate the social and architectural ambitions of Modernism, while remaining a sage and vocal critic of its failures’

Huxtable paved the way for both women writers and the hitherto languishing field of architectural criticism, becoming the first female newspaper architecture critic. She was also the first female adjudicator to sit on the jury for the Pritzker Prize, and the first architecture critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1970. She later served on the New York Times editorial board. Still, even at the height of her power, there were still places that were off limits to her, based on her gender. In one memorable instance, she was refused entry to the men-only University Club of New York, designed in 1889 by McKim, Mead & White. On being relegated to the ladies’ lounge, she remarked, with trademark alacrity: ‘The insult was as much architectural as personal’.

Web book covers

Web book covers

L-R, top to bottom; Kicked a Building Lately? 1976, The Unreal America 1997, Classic New York 1964, Architecture, Anyone? 1986, Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger 1986, Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard? 1972

In the present era of tumultuous urban and political change, there is still much to be gained from Huxtable’s ideas on architecture, theory, preservation, and fundamentally what it means to do right by the built environment. Reading her pieces from an earlier time, from the perspective of knowing how all these stories end, gives an insight into just how even-handed and prescient she was on issues such as urban planning policy and the politics of New York real estate. 

Of the former, Huxtable wrote in 1968: ‘The pinned butterfly of urban phenomena, the dissected and annotated crisis, with enough academic verbiage attached, substitutes handily for solutions … Research builds abstract monuments to itself. Funds are made available for “prototype studies” while untouched problems take their toll of the human heart and the urban world. In government agencies, policy set at the top is reversed by bureaucracy at the bottom.’ 

Of the latter, she wrote in 2006: ‘Wringing every possible dollar from a piece of property with a straight face and impressive hubris, as “the highest and best use of the land”. Say it often enough, and no one will question the absence of any need or purpose other than profit in the calculations.’ 

Huxtable new york times

Huxtable new york times

A page from the New York Times, 14 July 1973, with a piece by Huxtable on Battery Park City - in her years of newspaper criticism she was unafraid to speak truth to political and economic power

Today, this is depressingly apparent in the dominance of what used to be called the architecture section of bookstores by buzzword-laden, wonk-authored books on cities, while the overthrow and debasement of the New York skyline continues at the hands of banal curtain-wall supertalls and the cynical follies of Hudson Yards. Huxtable’s acerbic jeremiads and observations on the power of capital remain, unfortunately, true. 

Shrewd observers will note that her opinions on such things were not dissimilar to those of her contemporary Jane Jacobs. However, Huxtable’s work comes with the added bonus of its evasion of cooptation by all kinds of isms from New Urbanism to tactical urbanism; from YIMBYism to its nemesis, NIMBYism. Perhaps this is because unlike Jacobs, whose flâneur gaze turned towards the street-level interactions of her brownstone neighbours in Greenwich Village, Huxtable was a dedicated Modernist, able to advocate the architectural and social ambitions of Modernism while remaining a sage and vocal critic of its many failures. Though she was as acerbic as Jacobs in her denunciation of slum clearance and urban renewal, Huxtable’s New York vociferously included and defended the towering glass box whose ‘… soaring, faceted, reflective mass gives the city both its hard-edged brilliance and powerful poetry’.

Huxtable held steadfast against the zeitgeists of both Postmodernism and Deconstruction with a shrewdness that had been somewhat lost in the tumultuous riptides of concurrent architectural revolutions. A predilection for nuance made her fond of the Venturis and their delight in the complex and contradictory, and an eye for faddishness made her equally not fond of many of their successors and imitators (she memorably called Robert Stern the ‘Ralph Lauren of architecture’). 

This piece is featured in the AR March 2019 issue on Sex + Women in Architecture awards – click here to purchase your copy today

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