Ada Louise Huxtable Portrait © Lynn Gilbert
Introducing architecture as a part of public dialogue, the winner of the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for Criticism was a tenacious woman who became the doyenne of architectural criticism. A born and bred New Yorker, Ada Louise Huxtable earned her magna cum laude from Hunter College, CUNY, and later, did her post-graduation from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts in Architectural history. Her first tryst with architecture began in her 30’s by joining Philip Johnson as a Curatorial Assistant for Architecture and Design at the MoMA, New York for almost 2 years, after which she left her job upon receiving the Fullbright Scholarship and the opportunity to travel to Italy for research for a year. A Guggenheim Fellow, researching on structural and design advances of American architecture in 1958, before authoring her first book in 1959; she later became a contributing editor to a magazine, Progressive Architecture, and Art in America from 1963. It was after 19 years of work, that she pioneered a now-near extinct position of a newspaper architectural critic at The New York Times, a position that was created especially for her. It was then, when she situated architecture in its wider context, provoking, entertaining and engaging much larger audiences through her impassioned, learned defense of architecture of real values, from 1963-82. She curiously occupied a significant position in the modern cultural and architectural milieu through her sharp-mind and straight-forward critiques, transfixing the minds of architecture enthusiasts and the general public alike, for almost two decades.
“I wish people would stop asking me what my favorite buildings are, I do not think it really matters very much what my personal favorites are, except as they illuminate principles of design and execution useful and essential to the collective spirit that we call society.”
Years post her job as a critic at The New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote few books, including Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?, and did a number of projects, upon receiving grants for the same from Graham Foundation. In 1997, up till 2012, she took up the position at The Wall Street Journal, becoming one of the most influential media critics. Understanding a dire need for a dialogue, addressing the profound impact of architecture in shaping the environment, she introduced a sense of urgency for conscious design beliefs through her intellectual rigor and high design standards. Later in her career in 1981, earning an Mc Arthur grant gave her the freedom to pursue and address the issues of her choice in-depth, stepping down from the day to day, the deadline-driven pace of daily newspaper to a weekly article. She also served as the first woman member at the jury of experts for the Pritzker Architecture Prize from 1987 to 2005. In her last years, she dedicated herself completely to the preservation of landmarks and important buildings of the city; directing her essays and books to her cause. Even though she has been labeled a preservationist and a critic of architecture, she considered herself as a realist believing that the real world is constantly evolving and needs vigilance, as one is capable of wheeling the wagon of unintended grave consequences through architecture.
“We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed”
A young girl, living since her childhood, among the skyscrapers and bustling roads, in a straight-up, middle-class Jewish family of New York, Ada Louise Huxtable, slowly and quietly, honed her eyes to look beyond the conspicuous; that later outpoured onto her nuanced writings, reflecting her passion and dedication towards the city. Being a strong-headed woman in a patriarchal era, she created a strong foothold in the industry, while paving the way for contemporary architectural critics and women writers. Harnessing her wits and insightful commentary while taking well-aimed shots at some of the most important living architects, she became an intimidating figure to most luminaries in the field. Steadfast and voicing her opinions freely with no qualms, her words carried enormous weight securing or sinking many an architectural reputation, christening or thwarting many a project, and shaping the tastes and values of the public throughout the United States. It wasn’t just her receptive eye adding flair to her writings, but her presence of mind and an impeccable understanding of architecture and human interaction beyond their obvious tangibility, in its entirety, contemplating different dimensions in the dynamics of its being. As a result of long painstaking research, her articles gave a cohesive outlook as they were not limited to just architecture but also real estate, development, urbanism, local commercial interests, and politics.
“Superblocks are built, the physiognomy and services of the city are changed, without discussion, Architecture is the stepchild of the popular press.”
“Even though I think I wished for her attention, I was scared of it.”- Frank Gehry said, about Ada Louise Huxtable at her memorial service. Ada Huxtable was a critic so rare to be able to strike a balance between admiration, contempt, and fear in the hearts of her readers, through her hard-hitting, yet elegant and lucid prose, bearing deeper fundamental truth. She exhibited boundless passion and moral commitment through writing; she was a persistent advocate for preservation at a time of disillusionment regarding the concept, resulting in a blank state urban renewal, phony look-alikes as ‘authentic’ reproductions and surrogate environments, altering New York’s urban fabric completely.
“Those who change the course of art use any means to convince the world that it needs something it neither anticipates nor understands and rarely wants. Artistic achievement is in large part a function of will; it is rarely a function of character.”
Some Works of Ada Louise Huxtable:
“He was always out of the mainstream; he fits neither the Neue Sachlichkeit of the 1920s nor the age of irony with which the century ended.” Exploring the personal and professional relationships of F.L. Wright, along with their influences on his masterpieces, Ada Louise Huxtable sheds light on his troubled and tumultuous life. They are all here- all the eye-popping incidents in his life, making it characteristically insightful, thought-provoking and readable.
“There is no law that the cost of creativity has to be greater than that of formulaic mediocrity. There is no reason why New York construction should be abysmally ordinary or stupefying reactionary, while first-rate architecture recognized everywhere else goes begging here.” Rational and passionate, Ada Louise Huxtable in this particular book, captivates her readers through her keen eye and vivid writings. A collection of her many articles and critical writings for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, this book leaves a lasting impact on its readers, crediting her beautiful prose.
Ada Louise Huxtable stubbornly loathes the then decade’s desire for unreal and fantasy, for almost theme-park like designs- uninspired and unauthentic, casting an artificial gloss over the city’s unadulterated urban fabric. Relentlessly lamenting and charged by a deep sense of civic responsibility and conviction, she throws her honest critique towards then-contemporary architecture style and its direction of evolution. “We are being told, that it has become more important for architecture to be than to serve, to send messages than to fill needs, to exist as an art object in itself than to be integrated through its art into the rich and complex totality of life and use that makes this the most far-reaching art of all.”
Sympathetic towards all eras of skyscrapers, Ada in the book, offers a defense for cities and their consideration of the skyscrapers as most, but functional. The streamlined soaring towers full of pride and prejudice, release architectural talent and egos from the shackles of reason and responsibility, leading towards a Fourth Skyscraper Age-”One of the most anti structural approaches to design in building history – the stylistic phenomenon known as postmodernism.”
With alarming observations on the urban environment, this book offers a compilation of Ada Louise Huxtable’s criticism, striking forcefully at the destruction of some of the architecturally significant structures. “Never has so much progressive technology ended up with so many visual tricks,” she writes of modern churches. “Never has so much experimental structure been so decoratively misused. Never has the doctrine of free esthetic expression been so abused or engineering advances so superficially vulgarized for effect.” Until popular architecture makes an effort to understand the needs and the spirit of the age, writes Ada Louise Huxtable, “we will continue to have the pious reproductions, the dead reconstructions, the vacuum-packed imitations and the false, nostalgic standards that, at best, evoke only the second-hand suggestion of the artistic glories of some other age, or at worst, throttle creativity and subvert values in our own.”
The theme of this book was the destruction of Maple’s side, a stately century-old home in Madison, Wisconsin, and its replacement by a Burger King restaurant. There are around 60 chapters, each containing a short essay in the ongoing development of the preservation field with recurring themes, such as the demolition of buildings and their replacement by the mundane and trivial.
Information Sources: www.pioneeringwomen.com; Interview with Philip Lopate/ The New York Times