Architecture Immemorial: Ada Louise Huxtable

Huxtable, everlasting. (Getty)
Huxtable, everlasting. (Getty)

“Whatever Philip Johnson’s legacy turns out to be, it will not rest on his buildings,” Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in her obituary of “the king’s architect” in The Wall Street Journal eight years ago. Mr. Johnson had once told Ms. Huxtable of his desire to work for royalty. Not finding any, Ms. Huxtable concluded, he crowned himself king and kingmaker. In his way, he reshaped the world, and so too has she.

Ms. Huxtable, who died in Manhattan on Monday at the age of 91, may not have set out to be the people’s writer, but that is what she became. She just wanted to share her ideas about the city where she was born, what was wrong with it and how it ought to be made right, but probably never would be.

“She was extraordinarily proper and quiet and dignified,” said Paul Goldberger, her protégé and successor as the Times’s architecture critic, a job she created and held for two decades, winning the first Pulitzer for criticism along the way. “She loved to get together and talk, and she was not above a certain amount of gossip, but at the end of the day, what you remember her for was her writing, which is how she wanted it to be. She was not a sort of quirky, unusual character about whom you would tell stories until the end of time. She wanted to be remembered by her work, and she is.”

Yet whatever Ada Louise Huxtable’s legacy turns out to be, it will not rest on her writings. Thanks to her tender heart and often-biting words, Ms. Huxtable played perhaps a bigger role than any scribe before or after—and bigger than most politicians, planners and town elders, too—in the shaping of New York over the past half-century. She taught us how to read the city the same way she did.

Regarded as the inventor of architecture criticism and reportage as it is practiced today, she was heralded for her ability to spot a trend, though she never hewed to them. The one thing she did stand by was the city, celebrating what came before and what was yet to come. She had as sure a hand as her contemporary Jane Jacobs in launching both the preservation and the modern urbanism movements, standing up to modernism and urban renewal as it attempted to bulldoze everything in its path. Still, this never prevented her from celebrating the new.

“I think her greatest interests were preservation, not so much for the sake of saving old buildings but for the sake of saving the texture of the city,” said Robert Stern, the Yale architecture dean and celebrated architect. “She thought that the texture of the city, as I do, and I think many do, was the concatenation of many different things from many different periods and many different scales.”

Like every New Yorker, she was never satisfied by what the city had become, but she was always enlivened by what it could be, and she fought to make it so.

Mr. Stern had actually met Ms. Huxtable back in 1963, just as she was joining the Times, when the then-Yale dean Paul Rudolph gave Mr. Stern the keys to his car. “He instructed me to drive her around and show her all the new buildings, the Art and Architecture Building had just opened, and we had a grand old time,” Mr. Stern said.

The two did not always agree—she was generally not a fan of the referential (she might say kitschy) post-modern architecture often associated with Mr. Stern and late-period Philip Johnson (there was a certain sense of betrayal there)—but all the same, Mr. Stern and Ms. Huxtable remained cordial. “She would let you know when a building or a conversation had run its course,” Mr. Stern said.

Even as the times changed, and not just the buildings but the means of writing about them, Ms. Huxtable remained engaged. She might not have written as much as we wanted, or needed, her to. “But when something big happened, there she was, showing us how it is done,” said critic Alexandra Lange, who was inspired by first reading Ms. Huxtable at 16 to go into the field. She has been an inspiration to countless female writers.

Up until the end, she was writing, and writing so well. It has been much remarked upon that she penned a clarion rebuke to the New York Public Library for its pending plans to redesign the landmark building on 42nd Street, a proposal from the ballyhooed British Pritzker winner Lord Norman Foster. Ms. Huxtable rebuked the library, for “it is about to undertake its own destruction,” in her view. I had thought the proposal quite exciting, given that I rarely went to the Schwartzman Building, spending more time in the Mid-Manhattan Library across the street, but upon reading Ms. Huxtable’s challenge, I felt converted, if also a little foolish for being wooed by a sexy fly-through.

“She read every article, tracked remote blogs, engaged in discussions about the need to consider the implications of some new zoning code in emails sent at 2:00 am.,” recounted Julie Iovine, a fellow critic for the Journal and former editor of The Architect’s Newspaper. The two got to know each other over an acerbic article about another greatly hyped designer, Santiago Calatrava, that Ms. Iovine had written for the Times in 2004.

Yet for all Ms. Huxtable’s apparent taste for red meat, as both chef and connoisseur, she was in person a quiet presence. Everyone recalls being invited over for tea to her stately apartment on Park Avenue, where she might show off a piece of dinnerware her late husband—an industrial designer who also photographed many of her eight books—had designed for the Four Seasons.

Kent Barwick, the long-time director of the Municipal Art Society, on whose board Ms. Huxtable had served, recounted how upon being honored with the society’s greatest prize, she refused the typical thousand-dollar-a-plate fête that came with it. Instead, an intimate party with friends and MAS board members was held at the old Urban Center, where the society used to have its headquarters. “It was little more than a potluck, and still, of all those dinners, it remains one of the most memorable,” Mr. Barwick said.

While her work may not have always made it plain—the work itself certainly was never plain—Ada Louise Huxtable was concerned with the intimacies of life. The city has a way of forcing such closeness on us, but she taught us all that it ought to be embraced, an embrace made all the easier by a beautiful building or a well planned street. She was always striving to make the city better, warts and all, and so must we strive in her absence. For the city and for the future. Architecture Immemorial: Ada Louise Huxtable