Ada Louise Huxtable, Pulitzer-winning architecture critic, dies at 91

January 7, 2013

Ada Louise Huxtable, an architecture writer who received the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism and was one of the most trenchant, biting and influential voices in her profession for more than half a century, died Jan. 7 at a hospital in New York. She was 91.

Her attorney, Rob Shapiro, confirmed the death. He said she had cancer.

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.


Writer and architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable at her desk in New York City in March 1974. (Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

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.”

Mrs. Huxtable, who opposed what she called “blind mutilation in the name of urban renewal,” was credited as one of the driving forces in creating the Landmarks Preservation Commission for New York City in 1965.

The commission played a significant role in preserving designated landmarks, including Radio City Music Hall and hundreds of lesser-known buildings. This became important as federal highway and urban renewal funds were deployed in the 1960s and 1970s to raze historic structures to make way for new development.

“What preservation is really all about,” she wrote in the Times in 1968, “is the retention and active relationship of the buildings of the past to the community’s functioning present.”

Ada Louise Landman was born March 14, 1921, in New York. Her father was a physician.

She graduated magna cum laude with a fine arts degree from Hunter College, then attended New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts before joining the Museum of Modern Art as an assistant curator of the department of architecture and design.

In the early 1950s, she received two Fulbright fellowships to study architecture and design in Italy. The experience led to a speciality in freelance writing on that subject for Art Digest, Progressive Architecture and other publications.

Her feature pieces on Manhattan architecture for the New York Times Magazine won an important admirer, assistant managing editor E. Clifton Daniel. He created the post of architecture critic with Mrs. Huxtable in mind.

Though Penn Station was razed, Mrs. Huxtable was apparently more successful in her journalist campaigns to save other structures, from a mill complex in Manchester, N.H., to a bank building in Portland, Ore.

In the Washington area, she wrote positively in 1967 about the planned community of Reston, noting that it “ran counter to every standard practice and procedure of conventional real estate development. Standard practice means the sleazy subdivision and the asphalted shopping center, the familiar fast-buck operation, composed of short-term, quick profit, in-and-out financing and instant obsolescence.”

Mrs. Huxtable was not reflexively against modernism in urban design, just antagonistic to the “deathlessly ordinary” (her verdict on what is now the MetLife Building in Manhattan). Kennedy International Airport, she wrote, was an expression of sterility: “The promise of the air age, which was bold and brilliant, has petered out into a world of petty vulgarity and perpetual Muzak.”

Mrs. Huxtable, whose books included “The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style” (1984), found more to admire in the Seagram Building, Chase Manhattan Plaza and the Ford Foundation’s building.

With the possible exception of I.M. Pei’s East Building of the National Gallery of Art, Mrs. Huxtable was aghast at what she perceived as the boring architecture corrupting nearly every corner of Washington. Most appalling, she wrote, was the General Services Administration, which oversees federal construction nationwide.

The GSA headquarters, she wrote, “has cornered the market on all of the ugliest standard fixtures made anywhere, and no matter what architect designs the buildings it constructs in any city of the country, the G.I. equipment appears and covers them like a slow ooze.”

Arts criticism became a Pulitzer category in 1970, and Mrs. Huxtable won the first award. She was frequently consulted by environmental and planning commissions while at the Times, where she remained until 1982 and became a member of the editorial board. She left the Times when she won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, a so-called “genius grant.”

In recent years, she had worked at the Wall Street Journal and continued to write essays on designs such as the Ground Zero plaza in New York and the reconstruction of the historic New York Public Library headquarters.

For many years, she was a jurist for the Pritzker Prize, the highest honor in architecture.

Her husband, L. Garth Huxtable, an industrial designer, died in 1989. She had no children and leaves no immediate survivors.

In an interview Monday, architecture critic Edward Lifson said Mrs. Huxtable was an eminence in journalism but also in architecture, where her opinions were highly regarded among city planners and designers.

Lifson said her view of architecture was that “it’s never about the developer, or the theory or new heights, or innovation for innovation's sake. It was about how this improves the user. Is this fair, is this just? She compared it to an ideal: Is this the best project that could be on this site? Or is it good enough for us? Is this how we should be remembered? Or are we being sold down the river?”

Foremost, Mrs. Huxtable was concerned with the betterment of the city in which she spent nearly her whole life. “When it is good, New York is very, very good,” she wrote in 1968. “Which is why New Yorkers put up with so much that is bad. 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.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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