Architecture Critic Ada Louise Huxtable Dies At 91

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Ada Louise Huxtable, the pioneering former architecture critic of the New York Times, died Monday in Manhattan at age 91, the paper reported.

Huxtable, who retired from the Times in 1981, lived in Manhattan and Marblehead, Mass.

Beginning in 1963, as the first full-time architecture critic at an American newspaper, she opened the arcane world of design and planning to the general reader and was rewarded with the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, in 1970. More recently, she was the architecture critic of the Wall Street Journal.

At a time of blank-slate urban renewal, Huxtable championed preservation, not because old buildings were quaint, or even historical landmarks, but because they were vital to a living cityscape. She decried how profit dictated planning and led developers to squeeze the most floor area onto the least amount of land with the fewest public amenities.

Graceful in person, she did not shy in print from comparing the worst of contemporary American architecture to the totalitarian excesses of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.

Her writings were compiled in books including “Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?” (1970), “Kicked a Building Lately?” (1976) and “Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger” (1986).

Huxtable often emphasized buildings’ social function over their style. She invited readers to consider a building not as an assembly of features but as a public statement whose form and placement had real consequences for its neighbors as well as its occupants.

“I wish people would stop asking me what my favorite buildings are,” Huxtable wrote in the Times in 1971. “I do not think it really matters very much what my personal favorites are, except as they illuminate principles of design and execution useful and essential to the collective spirit that we call society.

“For irreplaceable examples of that spirit I will do real battle.”

Huxtable admired many buildings of her era, such as Lever House, the Ford Foundation Building and the CBS Building in Manhattan; the landmark Bronx Grit Chamber; Boston’s City Hall; the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington; and Pennzoil Place in Houston but could be scathing in condemnation of those she did not.

“The new museum resembles a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops,” she wrote in 1964 about the Gallery of Modern Art at 2 Columbus Circle. Her description came to be synonymous with the structure itself, “the lollipop building,” and was probably more familiar to New Yorkers than the name of the architect, Edward Durell Stone.

“Albert Speer [Hitler’s architect] would have approved,” she said in 1971 about Stone’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. “The building is a national tragedy. It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried.”

Ada Landman married L. Garth Huxtable, an industrial designer who took many of the photographs that illustrated her books. The couple also collaborated in designing tableware for the Four Seasons restaurant, which opened in 1959 in the Seagram Building. Garth Huxtable died in 1989.  

Ada Louise Huxtable was assistant curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art from 1946 to 1950. She was a Fulbright fellow, studying Italian architecture and design in 1950-52, and a Guggenheim fellow in 1958. She had also begun writing for architectural journals.

In 1963, she was hired by the Times as the first full-time architecture critic of a general-interest American newspaper.

In 1973, she was the second woman ever named to the Times editorial board and bowed out  as the daily architecture critic but continued to write about architecture in a Sunday column. She left the Times when she was appointed a MacArthur Fellow in 1981.   

Her interest in preservation did not make her an enemy of all modernity, but what infuriated her were “authentic reproductions” of historical architecture and “surrogate environments” like Colonial Williamsburg and master-planned communities like the Disney Company’s Celebration, Fla. “Private preserves of theme park and supermall increasingly substitute for nature and the public realm, while nostalgia for what never was replaces the genuine urban survival,” she wrote in “The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion” (1997).

Her last column, published in the Journal on Dec. 3, concerned the impending reconstruction of the New York Public Library eliminating the central stacks. Typically enough, it was titled “Undertaking Its Destruction.”

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