Between semesters, we all lost a valuable resource, in the person of Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic at the Wall Street Journal and formerly at the New York Times. She is the namesake of an award given in our department each year.
She was valuable to everyone in New York as a careful evaluator of buildings and plans that affect everyone, whether or not you have heard of her. She opened the eyes of every reader—hundreds of thousands of them—to the practicality and usefulness of good architecture and urban design and planning. She wrote for everyone, not just for architectural groupies who use arcane language. A journalist by profession, she was one of the greatest teachers that the city has ever had. All users of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street are lucky that she lived long enough to publish a scathing report of the Library’s misguided plans to remodel the building. It came out only a month before she died at age 91.
Our Architecture/Urban Design Studies majors probably know about Jane Jacobs, who wrote a famous book proposing that urban life flourishes in cities that are walkable and smallish in scale—-much like the western Greenwich Village where she lived. But Ms. Huxtable preceded her in alerting Americans to the value of historic preservation and neighborhood character. Ms. Huxtable was not afraid to criticize builders of atrocious, intrusive projects or architects who created trivial designs if they deserved sharp criticism, but she was always ready to study a new building carefully, learn its rationale, understand its architect and his or her work, assess the role of governmental rules, consider its financing and come up with a fair assessment of it. She was also willing to change her mind when the evidence told her to do that. Viewers needn’t always have agreed with her, but the could understand why she wrote what she did.
Because she was a careful researcher and a trenchant writer, she had a huge effect on our city and the officials in charge of supervising what gets built. Greedy developers were actually afraid of what she might write, and thoughtless architects worried about whether she’d notice their buildings and make everyone else pay attention. She was always ready to praise good ideas and good intentions, and to forgive inevitable errors when they didn’t affect the whole work. She studied hard and came up with conclusions that people could believe because they realized how carefully she had prepared her articles.
Sometimes her columns were funny, with pithy phrases that every other writer would have wanted to think of first. Sometimes they are passionate, praising or damning. Sometimes her articles explained unfamiliar matters such as zoning or law to her readers. You might want to learn more about our city by reading some of her books, which make great subway reading or airplane reading: Classic New York (about our oldest buildings), Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?, Kicked a Building Lately? and others, including a compact biography of Frank Lloyd Wright Most of her books are collections of her newspaper articles, so they’re short and readable separately.
All the architecture critics in the USA and several abroad have by now written something about the loss they feel and that her readers feel. While other critics don’t write as she did because they have their own ideas and styles, and sometimes don’t do the research that she did, either, they all understand that they wouldn’t have jobs if she hadn’t made architecture something to write about in the daily press and then the internet. Some claim to feel her looking over their shoulder, assessing the quality of their own work. That feeling probably won’t go away even if she will never read what the younger critics write in the future.
She was formidable in print, but gracious and elegant in person, surprisingly shy about speaking in public, and a warm, supportive friend to those close to her. Her apartment was filled with beautiful objects, many designed by her late husband, L. Garth Huxtable, who was a prominent modernist designer. Her apartment and its contents, a summer house on Cape Cod, and her archives have been left to the Getty research institute in Los Angeles, alas for New York. We in NYU’s Art History department will continue to be pleased that she allowed us to attach her name to an award for an outstanding student in our Architecture/Urban Design Studies major.
Here is the NY Times obituary.