Ada Louise Huxtable died this past Monday at the age of 91. She will be remembered as the first and thus far the best architecture critic at the New York Times, where she wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning column from 1963 to 1981. Even after leaving the Times, she remained active and relevant, writing sparkling and insightful reviews for the Wall Street Journal as recently as a month ago. The Real Deal today posted a photo retrospective of her career.
Being a good architecture critic is harder than you might think. To be a worthy critic of anything you need to have judgment as well as the literary skills and the emotional fortitude to communicate it, not to mention, of course, a thorough historical grounding in your chosen discipline — whether it be art or music or cinema. And that is all you need to be a critic — except when it comes to architecture. For that you also need to know something about urban theory, real estate law, engineering and the principles of physics. If Huxtable was deficient in anyone of those things, as the majority of us are in most of them, it certainly didn’t show.
In her reviews for the Times, Huxtable was unapologetically a creature of her time and place. That was the golden age of the International Style, and she loved its local monuments, heaping unstinting praise upon SOM’s Lever House and Mies’s Seagram Building. At the same time, she was decidedly less responsive to new architecture that broke away from that tradition, most notably when she condemned Edward Durrell Stone’s 2 Columbus Circle — in its previous incarnation — as that “Venetian lollipop” building. Had it not been for her article, and for the residual opposition to the building that it occasioned as much as 40 years later, perhaps the building would not have been radically revised a few years back in order to construct the far inferior Museum of Art and Design that now rises in its place.
In that long ago age when Huxtable started at the Times, exactly half a century ago, the unwired world was a very different place. Newspapers were the main dispensers of news and commentary; New York, with some 12 major dailies, was the center of the newspaper business; and the Times was paramount among the papers of New York. It is highly doubtful whether, in our pluralistic world, any critic will ever again acquire the power that Bosley Crowther had in film, Craig Claiborne in restaurant reviews, Hilton Kramer in art, Harold Schoenberg in music or Huxtable in architecture.
More recent architecture critics at the Times have veered from being recklessly opinionated about everything, like Herbert Muschamp, to having opinions on nothing, like the incumbent Michael Kimmelman. Sometimes they fell somewhere in between: Nicolai Ouroussoff could appreciate a building whatever the style and whatever the form; it just had to be designed by Zaha Hadid.
In none of them did one sense that seamless convergence of knowledge, judgment and literary skill, as well as the disinterested fortitude to convey it honestly. That was the hallmark of Huxtable’s writings over more than half a century.
James Gardner is The Real Deal’s architecture critic.