Ada Louise: Fierce Grace

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Ada Louise Huxtable photographed in the 1960s (Photo: Landmarks45.org)

During my coming of age as an artist, Ada Louise Huxtable‘s architectural criticism informed so many of my ideas about buildings, cities, preservation, city life, aesthetics. One of the first books I read after moving to Manhattan in the early 70s was Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Blvd? Back then big battles raged over what to do with a badly blighted Times Square, advocacy of the then-controversial idea of historial preservation, and the deadening loss of intimacy from the rash of skyscrapers on pilotis built along 6th Avenue. She was a defender of cities and city living, with a wicked pen that spoke truth to power undaunted. Her writing and her ideas made an indelible difference to the future of New York. She was, through it all, a paragon of fierce grace.

Since her death on January 7th at the age of 91, tributes to her are showing up everywhere. I spent some time this week reading what others had to say about her and marveling at her extraordinary body of work. For those of us who pay close attention to how to do your work and do it well right until the end, she cracked the code. In the words of architecture critic Fred Bernstein, “A critic hopes to produce significant work at 31 or 51, but Ada Louise was exactly as good at 91, writing about the Public Library proposal, as when she took the reins at the New York Times in 1963.” Teach me how to do that.

Below are a few excerpts from the many remembrances of Huxtable that can be accessed in excess online. These are a few of my favorites.

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There was no mistaking what Ms. Huxtable liked — Lever House, the Ford Foundation Building and the CBS Building in Manhattan; the landmark Bronx Grit Chamber; Boston’s City Hall; the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington; Pennzoil Place in Houston — and, even more delectably, what she did not.

“The new museum resembles a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops,” she wrote in 1964 about the Gallery of Modern Art at 2 Columbus Circle. Her description came to be synonymous with the structure itself, “the lollipop building,” and was probably more familiar to New Yorkers than the name of the architect: Edward Durell Stone.

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“Albert Speer would have approved,” she said in 1971 about his Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, linking Mr. Stone indirectly to the Nazis’ chief architect. “The building is a national tragedy. It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried.”

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Her interest in preservation did not make her an enemy of modernity. In “The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style” (1984), Ms. Huxtable said the glass curtain-wall skyscraper, epitomized by the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, offered “a superb vernacular, probably the handsomest and most useful set of architectural conventions since the Georgian row house.”

What infuriated her were “authentic reproductions” of historical architecture and “surrogate environments” like Colonial Williamsburg and master-planned communities like the Disney Company’s Celebration, Fla. “Private preserves of theme park and supermall increasingly substitute for nature and the public realm, while nostalgia for what never was replaces the genuine urban survival,” she wrote in “The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion” (1997).

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Ultimately, however, what animated and sustained her were not the mistakes but the triumphs. As she said of New York City in The Times in 1968:

“When it is good, this is a city of fantastic strength, sophistication and beauty. It is like no other city in time or place. Visitors and even natives rarely use the words urban character or environmental style, but that is what they are reacting to with awe in the presence of massed, concentrated, steel, stone, power and life.”

David Dunlap, New York Times

One of her last pieces was a review for the Journal of the new museum housing the Barnes Collection of art in Philadelphia. “How does it feel to have one’s core beliefs turned upside down? The ‘new’ Barnes that contains the ‘old’ Barnes shouldn’t work, but it does,” she wrote in May 2012. “And it isn’t alchemy. It’s architecture.”

Stephen Miller, Wall Street Journal

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Marblehead is the subject of the Huxtable quote I love best. Writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2011, she was commenting on the work of an architect who designs houses in imitation of the styles of the past. Huxtable wrote that the architect’s historic details were so accurate they amounted to a kind of perfection. “Full confession: I am no fan of perfection,” she wrote. She then used Marblehead to explain what she meant:

“I have spent a good part of my life in a small New England town with a priceless American heritage where such over-the-top perfectionism simply does not exist. There are offbeat and off-kilter compromises by carpenter-builders trying to follow the examples in English pattern books in the new towns of the New World, dealing with costs and shortages, substituting materials, inventing their own details. The 18th-century house built for the richest man in town is made of wood cut in blocks to simulate stone that was not available. This place is genuine; its buildings retain the hallmarks of its history, something that can never be imitated or reproduced, and there is not a perfect thing anywhere — for which I am eternally grateful.”

Writing about the world we build and inhabit doesn’t get any more eloquent than that. Not wanting things to be perfect and showoffish, but instead embracing the whole of life with its multiplicity and complication: That was Huxtable.

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The Huxtable piece that made the most difference to New England was probably her unforgettable blast, way back in 1968, against a plan to demolish the riverfront textile mills of Manchester, N.H., and replace them with parking lots. “Lessons in Urbicide” was the title of her piece, which appeared in The New York Times. She wrote: “The story of the destruction of the Amoskeag mill complex that has formed the heart of Manchester, N.H., for over a hundred years has a terrible pertinence for the numberless cities committing blind mutilation in the name of urban renewal. . . . We are making a dull porridge of parking lots and cheap commercialism, to replace the forms and evidence of American civilization.”

“Urbicide,” “blind mutilation,” “dull porridge”: Huxtable had a delightful gift for finding nasty words to describe architectural evil. The article was an early cry for help on behalf of the monuments of America’s industrial past. The Amoskeag mills survived and acquired new uses. New England was never the same.

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Huxtable loved whatever is real, regardless of fashion or the vagaries of taste, and she hated any kind of phoniness. She was the first to point out to me that the term “authentic reproduction” is an absurd oxymoron. Marblehead was a relief for her from the hyper-competitive, fashion-conscious culture of New York. Her house was livable but ordinary, thus fitting right in to Marblehead. I think she was secretly proud that it lacked the slightest trace of architectural finery.

Robert Campbell, Boston Globe

One of Ada Louise’s most endearing characteristics was her sharp sense of humor. In the course of the many years of architectural discussion I was fortunate enough to enjoy with her, she invariably came up with a bon mot that encapsulated her opinion. An example of this was her description to me of Lincoln Center’s 1960s architecture as “soft modernism.” That witty censure was made in 2009, just as Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s various renovations at Lincoln Center were nearing completion—renovations that I was thinking of including in a book. With her usual generosity of spirit, she suggested we visit the Juilliard School together.

Granted, in 1969 Ada Louise had been less harsh in her criticism of Eero Saarinen’s Vivian Beaumont Theater and Pietro Belluschi’s Juilliard than she was of the Center’s other buildings. But now, standing across Broadway from the school, she went so far as to pronounce the glazed façade that had replaced the school’s stolid masonary front “a miracle from the street.” As on other occasions, Ada Louise went from humor to an inspiring seriousness.

Victoria Newhouse, Architectural Record

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If library officials thought that they could deter Ada Louise, they were mistaken. She plowed on and her excoriating analysis of the developer-driven decision of the library to flip some branches for cash came out on December 3, just about a week after her return to the city from Marblehead. As usual, with a complete grasp of the advantages, the deal-making, the reputations and the hollow promises, Ada Louise cut to the chase, writing: “A research library is a timeless repository of treasures, not a popularity contest measured by head counts, the current arbiter of success. This is already the most democratic of institutions, free and open to all. Democracy and populism seem to have become hopelessly confused.” She understood that a city is only as great as the intelligent community it fosters, and her own writings have sharpened our views and expectations of the city that she loved from near and far.

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She infuriated the hidebound developers who otherwise felt free to inflict their lowest-denominator horrors on the city. I’m sure Times editors fielded countless enraged calls from the cadres who thought they controlled all of the levers of power. Thanks to Ada Louise, they didn’t always.

James Russell, Architectural Record

She knew, of course, that the management of the paper was not visually inclined, and that her editors often knew less about her subject than her readers. And she knew, more importantly, that she would convert them to visual literacy not by lecturing them about their ignorance about architecture and design, but through the strength and clarity of her writing. She was too urbane to be a missionary, and too subtle to be a crusader. She was a writer, and a journalist, and she knew how to trust her own eye, and how to write a good sentence. On that combination, we might say, was the whole modern profession of architecture criticism built, since all of us stand on her shoulders.

Paul Goldberger, Architectural Record

Kicked A Building Lately? Well, have you? That question, the title of the 1976 collection of Ada Louise Huxtable’s work for the New York Times, embodies her approach to criticism. It is active, it is irreverent, it is personal, it is physical, and it puts the onus simultaneously on the critic and on her public to pay attention. To kick the tires of a building you have to be present at its creation and its completion. You have to let yourself be small beside it, walk around it, walk up the steps, pick (delicately) at the the joints, run your fingers along the handrail, push open the door. You have to let yourself stand back, across the street, across the highway, across the waterfront, and assess. And then you have to go home and write exactly what you think, in simple language, marking a path through history, politics, aesthetics, and ethics that anyone can follow. I love her writing but the first lesson I teach is that attitude. Architecture is for us, the public, and it is going to get scuffed.

Alexandra Lange, Design Observer

And a few random but memorable Huxtable quotes:

“Washington is an endless series of mock palaces clearly built for clerks.”

“An excellent job with a dubious undertaking, which is like saying it would be great if it wasn’t awful.”

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2 comments

  1. Maureen’s avatar

    The best writers learn from reading writers who often are not in their own discipline. Huxtable is one to whom many could and should look. Her writing was so wonderful, she made it look easy. Her zingers always seemed to hold so much truth. A couple of her quotes I especially like:

    “An excellent job with a dubious undertaking, which is like saying it would be great if it wasn’t so awful.”

    “Summer is the time when one sheds one’s tension with one’s clothes, and the right kind of day is jeweled balm for the battered spirit. A few of those days and you can become drunk with the belief that all’s right with the world.”

    Her words about D.C., the lovely side of which she could see, are especially memorable. Of the Hirshhorn she wrote that the building was “lacking only gun emplacements or an Exxon sign. . . It totally lacks the essential factors of esthetic strength and provocative vitality that make genuine ‘brutalism’ positive and rewarding style. This is born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern. Its mass is no so much aggressive or overpowering as merely leaden.” I don’t think I’ve ever looked again the same way at that great circular mass on Independence Avenue.

  2. deborahbarlow’s avatar

    Maureen, so so true. No one can touch her insight coupled with an uncanny ability to connect with anyone.

    The quote you shared about the Hirschhorn is priceless! I feel like someone should put together a selection of some of her best zingers. Just for fun.

    Thanks for your adds to this post.

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