"...Aquilo que vai ficar de um povo é a sua cultura..." António Lobo Antunes
The great architecture criticAda Louise Huxtable, who died on Monday at 91, started writing for The New York Times in 1963 and just a few weeks ago was still making the most of her bully pulpit for The Wall Street Journal, railing against proposed changes to the New York Public Library building at 42nd Street.
She cared about public standards, social equity, the whole city. When I wrote some months back about branch libraries in Queens and elsewhere that have opened lately, thanks to the city’s Design Excellence Program, she shot me an e-mail: “These projects are clear, visual demonstrations, which people need in order to understand how a high standard of architectural design and the refusal to go with hack work can have very real and sometimes unanticipated social, human, environmental and neighborhood consequences, often in parts of the city that need it so badly and that we hear so little about.”
Nearly half a century earlier Ms. Huxtable celebrated a stretch of lower Broadway where a Noguchi sculpture had arrived in the plaza of a new tower, “one of the handsomest in the city,” she noted in The Times before providing a 360-degree view in fine-grained prose. (“Look to your left,” she wrote, “and you will see the small turn-of-the-century French pastry in creamy, classically detailed stone that houses the neighboring Chamber of Commerce.”)
The architecture of the new building was inextricably bound up with the spot on which it had risen, and what mattered to her critical sensibility as much as the quality of its curtain wall (“the taut, shiny-dark sleekness of matte black aluminum and gleaming bronze glass”) was its impact at street level. Writing about architecture meant writing about life down to the corner and the curb — buildings are lived in, after all, not just sculptures or monuments on a skyline.
“Instead of a public architecture, or an architecture integrated into life and use,” Ms. Huxtable lamented in The New York Review of Books 20 years ago, “we have ‘trophy’ buildings by ‘signature’ architects, like designer clothes.” She identified the ingenuity of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, but also the debased, money-driven culture, with its desire for “an iconic look-alike by a tiresomely familiar name” that had come in its wake.
“I have never joined architectural groupies of any persuasion,” she wrote in the preface to “On Architecture,” a 2008 collection of her writings. That was true. “As an architectural historian, I have not bought into anyone’s belief systems, including modernism’s most admirable and often faulty illusions. I have a built-in skepticism of dogma.”
This allowed Ms. Huxtable to weather shifting fashions without having to say she was sorry. Her tastes didn’t waver over the decades, nor did her standards. She liked Boston’s City Hall when it opened in 1968, although most people didn’t, and she liked it 40 years later, when a young generation of architects was coming around to its Brutalism, but much of the public still wanted to tear it down. The building was “uncompromising,” she wrote.
Patrician, old-school, tough but softhearted, she never wrote as if she owed anything to anyone except her readers, treating her beat as a mix of aesthetics and public policy, art and advocacy, technology and politics, because to write about architecture as anything less would be to shortchange its complexity and significance.
Ms. Huxtable’s first publication in The Times seems to be a letter to the editor in 1957, complaining about an art review of photographs of architecture in Caracas, Venezuela, that ignored the deleterious effects of those photogenic but authoritarian buildings on the fabric of the city and its people. Like many others who grew up reading her, I gained a sense of the central role of architecture and urbanism in civic life and culture from the urgency of her writing, which came down to meditations on how we live and what kind of legacy we wish to leave.
She emerged during the era of Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, with whom she belongs in the pantheon, but as the first full-time critic writing on architecture for an American newspaper, she also had that rare journalistic opportunity to pioneer something of her own, to fill a yawning gap in the public discourse, to carve a path with moral dimensions, “to celebrate the pleasures of this remarkable art,” as she put it.
Years later Ms. Huxtable wrote in The New York Review of Books:
“When so much seems to conspire to reduce life and feeling to the most deprived and demeaning bottom line, it is more important than ever that we receive that extra dimension of dignity or delight and the elevated sense of self that the art of building can provide through the nature of the places where we live and work. What counts more than style is whether architecture improves our experience of the built world; whether it makes us wonder why we never noticed places in quite this way before.”
Dignity and delight. “The consistent theme is pleasure,” Ms. Huxtable wrote in 1978. “There is so much more to see, to experience, to understand, to enjoy.”