Architecture occupies a peculiar place in the life of democratic societies. Most buildings get built because some private concern, an individual or a corporate entity, commissions it. Because procuring land and constructing buildings is expensive, the private concerns that do so typically enjoy the benefits of wealth, which include social and political influence in excess of the democratic credo of one man, one vote. Yet architecture, or most of it anyway, is a public good: what any one person or institution builds, others must live with, and often for a very long time. This situation surely produces buildings that reliably serve clients’ interests, but less reliably serve the public. How to shift the balance of power so that the rest of us get buildings and places that are good for us too?
At least partly through a free and forceful press: that’s what Ada Louise Huxtable, the former architecture critic for the New York Times figured out. Huxtable, who died on January 7 at the age of 91 (publishing her last article, on Foster & Partners’ proposed renovation for the New York Public Library, in December) recounted how she demanded, cajoled, and insisted that the Times take the built environment seriously by walking into an editor’s office “with a list of all the stories the Times was missing. Well, you tell an editor what he’s missing, and he pays attention.” The Times created a new position for Huxtable, naming her the paper’s first architecture critic, and giving her a post alongside its array of critics of art, literature, theater, music, film, and dance. She wrote for the Times for 19 years, leaving it only to take up an analogous but less relentlessly demanding position at the Wall Street Journal.
Huxtable never let her readers, or anyone else who would listen, forget that architecture is not like the other arts. Paintings or dance performances you choose to see or not see, but architecture envelops us all. Everyone sees and experiences it. Huxtable insisted both that architecture is an art and that it is an art that everybody deserves to enjoy precisely because it constitutes the life of our inhabited places. Recognizing the structural imbalance among moneyed clients, designing architects, and the voiceless public, she did not hesitate to criticize, first, developers, then, when the times demanded it, developers and misguided public officials, and then, more recently, developers, misguided public officials, and misguided architects. She was going to call people out for the horrors and mediocrities they perpetrated upon New York City and the world.
Upon the demolition of McKim, Mead, and White’s majestic neoclassical Pennsylvania Station in New York to make way, via the sale of air rights, for Penn Plaza, a hotel, office, sports and entertainment complex of, at best, execrable banality, Huxtable exploded, “It’s time we stopped talking about our affluent society. We are an impoverished society,” she insisted, because of the buildings and cities that we build. Referring elsewhere to Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, she spat that the aesthetic of American society was declining from Roman Imperial to “Investment Modern”. Real estate developers were not Huxtable’s friends.
With her articles on Penn Station and other developments—some executed, others not—in lower Manhattan, Huxtable helped to catalyze the historic preservation movement and became its nominal patron saint. But her honored status was immaterial to her; some years later, historic preservation had evolved into a risible bastion of conservatism, nostalgia and muddle-headed standards, she searingly castigated preservationists for having gone too far. Similarly, Huxtable recognized early on that Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, along with other historicist post-modernists, were launching an important critique of corporate modernism. But she never became an ideological convert, rightly condemning the flat, brightly colored festoons on Michael Graves’ Portland City Hall and the Chippendale top of Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s AT&T tower in Manhattan as so many decorative tails pinned on unworthy donkeys. More recently, Huxtable trenchantly attacked today’s starchitects (and their clients) for an excess of what she dubbed “helicopter architecture”: flamboyant, form-driven, pictorial buildings dropped into host cities with little regard for local culture, urban context or environment, and often with little regard, indeed, for a person’s actual experience of them on the ground.
Any one of Huxtable's contributions to architecture would earn her lasting renown. Her writing helped bring architecture critical to national and international prominence; she helped instigate the historic preservation movement at a time when developers were razing whatever they could to squeeze every inch of profit from their land; she championed historicist post-modernism with an open mind, but also with clear eyes and discerning if occasionally contestable judgment.
But Huxtable’s contributions should be seen to extend beyond architecture: she developed standards for criticism that critics of any art would do well to emulate. What are these standards? She followed talent, not money. She was gracious and she was also hard-hitting. She recognized that architecture is more than art, but she also recognized that it is art, and helped convinced generations of readers, including me, that it’s a kind of art that everyone deserves. She had forceful opinions, but she was also flexible. And she always looked at what was in front of her, judging buildings by what she saw, not by what the architect had intended to do, or by what aesthetic or intellectual position she believed a building might represent.
Her virtue of looking at and seeing what was actually in front of her, however, also meant that she chose to leave one important critical task to others. Articulating a vision and a program for architecture and urban design is also the purview of the critic, as necessary as explaining why this or that new building or development project is good or bad. But Huxtable always demurred, humbly insisting that she was only a journalist trying to make it to the next deadline, and a historian with a healthily skeptical approach to all doctrines. But this is a doctrine, too, a kind of Burkean conservatism that effectively champions small-scale, incremental adjustments to what already exists. Such caution, in line with the times and sympathetically in tune with her better-known colleague, Jane Jacobs, had its place as a corrective. But it’s a doctrine that ultimately inhibits progress along the lines that Huxtable cherished and would have celebrated: toward an informed, forward-looking citizenry, and public officials held accountable to a clearly articulated and deeply understood vision of the common good.