Ada Louise Huxtable

The phone in Ada Louise Huxtable’s study rang, and she let the machine pick it up. It was someone asking for a time when she could meet as part of a jury for an architecture award. “I resigned!” she barked back at the machine. She collected herself. “I am tired of having to teach these people,” she said. “Let them learn for themselves.”

Ms. Huxtable, who is now the architecture critic for The Wall Street Journal and who essentially invented the field of architecture criticism for a general audience, isn’t looking for extra opportunities to impress others with what she knows about the art of building. At 84, she delivers a takedown as well as anybody, but she’s more selective in her targets. She does fewer of them, for one, and doesn’t feel compelled to save every good building and tear down all the bad ones. “Often, I would do things because I thought I should do them, out of a sense of responsibility,” she said. “Now my philosophy is, ‘Look, you young people, it’s your responsibility. I’m going to do what I want to do.’“

In 1968, Ms. Huxtable—only five years into her official tenure as architecture critic for The New York Times—was already so well-known for her sharp tongue that The New Yorker ran a cartoon, by Alan Dunn, showing two construction workers in hard hats with the skeleton of a new building going up behind them. One of them, reading the newspaper, says to the other of the unfinished building, “Ada Louise Huxtable already doesn’t like it.” Punch Sulzberger, the Times publisher, bought the original cartoon and gave it to Ms. Huxtable. A friend stitched the quote on a needlepoint cushion that the critic keeps on the sofa of her study.

The study is a compact room for a compact person, with books crawling up to the ceiling, an old-fashioned rug, and a pen-and-ink drawing of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., perched on a credenza. Ms. Huxtable herself, attired in a black suit and with a crown of white hair, is much friendlier in person than in print, but just as frank. Her large penthouse apartment sprawls out behind her and, at first glance, appears unexceptional, as if its inhabitant has more on her mind than her most immediate surroundings. That patrician-populist perspective leads her to upbraid the star-chitects who have invaded New York recently, concentrating on expensive condos rather than on civic projects or affordable housing. “And Richard Meier’s buildings—to tell you the truth, if I had the money, I wouldn’t want to live there.”

These days, Ms. Huxtable is steamed with what she has, in a way, wrought herself. She was at the forefront of the historic-preservation movement—she began writing at a time when chunks of New York were being torn down wholesale—but now she thinks that it has gone bonkers. Exhibit A is 2 Columbus Circle, recently the subject of a splashy preservation attempt by such luminaries as Robert A.M. Stern and Tom Wolfe. Its current owner, the Museum of Arts and Design, is now cutting windows into the windowless concrete façade designed by Edward Durrell Stone. Ms. Huxtable panned the building when it opened in 1964, and she panned it again two years ago in The Journal. It is, she said, an example of the city’s landmarking instinct devolving into “chaos.”

“When it opened as the Huntington Hartford Museum,” Ms. Huxtable said, “I thought it was one of Ed Stone’s very poor buildings, when he became very commercial and was giving a screen formula to any client. I reviewed it and said it was a ‘die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops,’ and it stuck. It’s now simply referred to everywhere as ‘the lollipop building.’ I also knew Ed Stone—who became Edward Durrell Stone— and I knew his work, and people who were there at the same time agreed. But today they don’t listen. I don’t think they listen in any field.”

On the other hand, the preservation process didn’t work at all for the Austin Nichols & Co. warehouse building on the Williamsburg waterfront. Earlier this fall, the City Council overturned the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s decision to protect the 1915 structure, with the local Councilman, David Yassky, calling it “a nondescript white box of a building.”

Now, now, Mr. Yassky.

“Of course it should be landmarked. It’s by Cass Gilbert, one of our great architects,” Ms. Huxtable said. “You have people who absolutely know nothing making outrageous statements about the architectural value of the building.”

The City Council even overrode Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto of the Austin Nichols decision, but the fact he got involved in an architectural fight—and took Ms. Huxtable’s side—has redeemed him in her eyes after his futile attempt to put a football stadium on the West Side. “I think it shows he is not afraid of doing something. I think he has more of a sense of what’s good for the city than other people do.”

Her commitment to The Wall Street Journal is light enough—contractually, just six pieces a year—that she can pick and choose among the big topics about which she feels people must listen. Lately, she has focused on what she has called the “betrayal” of architect Daniel Libeskind’s master plan for rebuilding Ground Zero, of which she was a big fan. First there was developer Larry Silverstein’s insistence that he get to rebuild 10 million square feet of office space in order to receive his full insurance payments. Then there was the architectural do-over of the Freedom Tower by David Childs, “an awkwardly torqued hybrid” that “speaks more of ego and arrogance than of art.” And finally, she wrote, the success of a small, vocal group of victims’ relatives in pushing aside cultural institutions proves that “the entitlements of loss and grief are the third rail of the rebuilding effort.”

Her insistence on which topics must be discussed is the hallmark of her career. Forty-six years ago, Ms. Huxtable got her first assignments by walking into New York Times Sunday editor Lester Markel’s office and telling him everything he was missing.

“They would simply print the puff pieces,” she said, “and they would show architects’ renderings, and I would get so upset. I would say, ‘That terrible thing?!’ I do believe in entitlement. I do believe we all are consumers of architecture, and that we are all entitled to something good, and that this garbage was being foisted on us by developers. I came out from the belief that architecture is a social art. It’s a great art, but it’s a social art. It has to work. It has to serve people.”

Shortly thereafter, The Times created a new job for her: architecture critic, the first one at a daily newspaper in this country. She became an influential voice for the ordinary man in an age of organization men, and an advocate for architecture over real-estate development. In 1970, she won the first Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Some of what Ms. Huxtable would learn about buildings in practice—she studied architectural history at Hunter College and was, from 1946 to 1950, an assistant curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art—came from her husband, L. Garth Huxtable, an industrial designer she had met at the end of college, during a chance encounter at Bloomingdale’s. She was working at a special sale of modernist furniture staged in conjunction with a show of new designs at MoMA. (“He was furnishing his bachelor apartment and I sold him a piece of furniture, and he got me!”) Later, when he began designing the conference rooms at the United Nations building, he took her along to see the progress.

When she started at The Times, Ms. Huxtable was terrified, and she balked at Clifton Daniel’s offer to take her on full-time as the newspaper’s first-ever architecture critic—until he said that he would hire someone else if she refused. One would never expect, reading her elegant, confident prose or hearing her speak, that Ms. Huxtable ever felt that she didn’t know what she was doing. (“I never handed in a piece that had a correction on it, because I didn’t want anybody else to make a correction.”) She took on cause after cause, and whether it was because of her or her megaphone or the broader preservation movement, at least some of those buildings got saved.

Ms. Huxtable left The Times in 1982, aided by a MacArthur Fellowship that permitted her to work on books full-time. (She is now fishing for a new project.) Her husband died in 1989, and she now spends half of the year on the north shore of Massachusetts, near cousins and other relatives from her mother’s side of the family.

Age has been on her mind lately. Last year, she finished a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright for the Penguin Lives series in which she took the architect—one of her favorites—to task for lying about his birth date, making himself appear two years younger than he actually was. It was, she wrote, “the sort of small, white vanity lie usually embraced by women but common also among men.”

Ms. Huxtable would never do that—“My age is on the record, and I know perfectly well that no one will ever write anything about me without giving it”—but the peace she has made with the age question is a prickly, uneasy one. She is bothered by the idea that she will be treated “as some sort of freak show,” she said.

“I often get these letters that say, ‘I want to do what you do,’ this kind of business, and I try to be tolerant, because I never set out to do this. I set out to learn as much about architecture as I could,” she said. “In other words, you’ve got to have a sense of purpose and interest in something, and that will always lead you somewhere.”