Writing initially for the New York Times, where the position of architecture critic was conceived for her in 1963, Mrs. Huxtable emerged as a bold voice for quality of life in development, whether campaigning against antiseptic modernism in urban building or the mindless creep of suburban tract developments.
“Since a child, I have been a lover of cities and buildings,” the native New Yorker once declared. She expressed her love in an accessible and gutsy style, always keeping in mind that the prime consideration in architecture should be how it makes people who use it feel.
When she began writing in the 1950s, the trend in city building veered to a style described as “heroic corporate modernism.” Historic preservation was a fringe concept seen as an impediment to progress. Architecture was not part of everyday conversation or political discourse, and it was often taken for granted that the larger forces at work in city and suburban design were all operating for the public good.
Mrs. Huxtable played an incalculable role in elevating architecture far more into the mainstream of dialogue and debate. She did this, in part, by refusing to be seduced by the concept of the architect as grand visionary whose work was genius beyond question.
She wrote penetratingly against the mind-set of entitlement that allowed developers, with their riches and Rolodexes, to remake cities and suburbs without a strong voice offering an informed countervailing opinion. She also tried to illuminate the history of a space long before that became fashionable in criticism circles.
Mrs. Huxtable did not write for theorists. She was accessible in her tone and confident in her opinions, layering into her columns vivid details of a structure down to its doorknobs.
Her 1970 collection, “Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?,” featured one of her most memorable eviscerations of the new building that emerged from the demolition of New York’s Penn Station in 1963.
The old structure, replete with marble and granite molded to steel and glass, was meant to evoke the glory and power of the Roman Empire and affix that aura to the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad. In its place was erected a drum-shaped sports arena, Madison Square Garden, with a nondescript glass-and-concrete office building atop it.
Mrs. Huxtable lamented that developers would approve a “giant pizza stand” on the Parthenon if they could ram through studies to justify it.
“Not that Penn Station is the Parthenon,” she added, “but it might as well be because we can never again afford a nine-acre structure of superbly detailed travertine, any more than we could build one of solid gold. It is a monument to the lost art of magnificent construction, other values aside.”