The Design Observer Group


Posted 01.08.13


Alexandra Lange

Kicked A Building Lately?



Huxtable in the New York Times newsroom with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger in 1970, when she won the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism. I just love the expression on her face. (Librado Romero/The New York Times)

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 — and I will get to some choice quotes — but the first lesson I teach is that attitude. Architecture is for us, the public, and it is going to get scuffed.

Ada Louise Huxtable, who died Monday at 91, was my hero, and I am not sure I have another. She has been my hero since I was 16, and a local architect put one of her essays into my hands. I read her in college; I read her as an editorial assistant; her prescient 1957 article “The Park Avenue School of Architecture” is the centerpiece of one chapter of my dissertation; her 1968 critique “Sometimes We Do It Right” is the topic of the introduction to my book. I read her so much that when I finally met her last March, she was exactly as I had imagined her to be. Except shorter. It brought me a small amount of pleasure that both of us were just slightly over five feet tall. It gives you a naturally skewed perspective on the world of averages.

My avatar Ada Louise Huxtable dwelled in the 1960s. I always imagined her slim, birdlike, in a suit, cocking her head at each new Park Avenue curtain wall, stepping around the construction site in neat pumps, taking notes on a pad produced from her pocketbook. Gloves? She might smile politely at a press conference, but she’d already be writing in her head. Then she would go back to her desk and let the hammer down. She didn’t need to shout, but she had the power to shame.

Her last published essay in the Wall Street Journal was on the New York Public Library’s renovation plans. But they would show her no plans. She waited, and waited, until she could wait no more.
I have been patient and cooperative, but I believe I have waited long enough. I am certain Foster will come up with impeccable, creative solutions. However, I no longer feel I must see these drawings no matter how skillfully they address the plan. They will undoubtedly be functional and handsome in Foster's trademark high-tech manner. However, after extensive study of the library's conception and construction I have become convinced that irreversible changes of this magnitude should not be made in this landmark building.
She had similar disdain for the plans to alter SOM’s 1954 Manufacturers Hanover Trust in 2010.
This was one of the first buildings I ever reviewed as an architecture critic, and it has continued to give me pleasure every time I pass it. The incandescent transparency of the small, glowing jewel box appearing suddenly among the solid, somber buildings that surround it, the open view of its luminous ceilings and the rich, golden contrast of the Bertoia screen clearly visible through the glass walls on the 43rd Street side, have never lost the capacity to surprise and delight.

The Bertoia sculptures are gone, and the interior seems destined to be stripped of everything that defined it and made the city a better place. The building has been irrevocably impoverished, and the destruction promises to be complete with its conversion to generic commercial space. As a landmark, it becomes a travesty.
Others have already quoted her takedown of the Kennedy Center, one of the few times when (in my opinion) she went over the top. But her 1971 take on the taste of Washington, D.C. still burns with the passion of the aggrieved and disgusted.
Washington, D.C. specializes in ballooning monuments and endless corridors. It uses marble like cotton wool… The style of the Kennedy Center is Washington superscale, but just a little bit bigger. Albert Speer would have approved.

It has apotheosized the corridor in a six-hundred-foot-long, sixty-foot-high grand foyer (the length of three New York City blockfronts), one of the biggest rooms in the world, into which the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles could be cozily nested.
And there’s more. “There is enough red carpet for a total environment.” “They would be great for drag racing.” “The Opera House … looks like one of those passé red-padded drugstore candy valentines.” Herbert Muschamp had nothing on her for the extravagant simile.

On a positive note, there’s this, on the future of Park Avenue at a time when only Lever House was providing glassy reflection.
Today the old Park Avenue is being buried with remarkable and ruthless efficiency. Pedestrians pick their way through dust and debris, past temporary fences put together out of discarded (and still oddly personal) apartment house doors, while musty rubble thunders down chutes from ghosts of buildings stripped to shabby, naked steel. For we no longer just bury the past; we destroy it to make room for the future… As the old buildings disappear radical new ones rise immediately in their place, and the pattern of progress becomes clear: business palaces replace private palaces; soap aristocracy supplants social aristocracy; sleek towers of steel-framed blue, green, or gray-tinted glass give the avenue a glamorous and glittering new look.
Equally prescient, almost 50 years later, is her review of two landscape exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in 2005, Groundswell and The High Line.
In one of those totally unpredictable shifts in sensibility that occur when least expected, it is the landscape architects who are re-engaging today’s radically innovative aesthetic with human needs and social functions; this is where the essential connections with the human condition are being made. And just in time, as architects, seduced by celebrity and technology, engaged in a dead-end contest in egos and engineering, have become more fixated on object making than place making, more removed from the intrinsic social purposes of their art.
I could go on quoting, but I won’t. If you are looking for more to read, her early collections are cheaply bought.

When I had tea with Ada Louise Huxtable, I did not ask for advice. She had read my book, and felt (incredibly) that I had understood her. We talked instead about the architectural matters of the day, like friends. She was about to go to the Barnes Foundation. She had just read Victoria Newhouse’s Site and Sound. She was feeling stymied by the New York Public Library, which would show her no plans (heavy foreshadowing). But I took two comments away with me for further contemplation.

The first was her productivity. When Huxtable became the Times architecture critic in 1963, she was making up the position as she went along. (It is worth noting that Aline Louchheim might have been the paper’s first architecture critic, had she not gone off and married Eero Saarinen, thus creating a conflict of interest. More on the long history of female architecture critics to come.) One of the Times’s rules was you could not critique a project that had not been reported on. So quite often Huxtable had to write the news story so that she could write her critique. And then Sunday rolled around, and she was to write another piece for the Sunday review. She was blogging avant la lettre, or rather, journalism hasn’t changed as much as we think it has.

The second is related to that productivity. The obituaries and tributes, the burst of killer quotes and thoughtful links on Twitter last night (everyone had a favorite, closely linked to their personal agenda) mark the highlights of a career that surely had some misses and regrets too. I’m not planning to look them up or point them out. But I asked her, did she ever worry about being consistent, about what it all added up to. We see her now as an early adopter of modernism, a peerless defender of preservation, and so on, but was she self-consciously so? The answer, as I hoped, was no. She wrote what she thought, as she thought, based on her research and observation. She trusted to her own internal consistency. This is the journalist’s approach, to treat each project with the tools required, moving forward, ever forward.