Dreams Built and Broken: On Ada Louise Huxtable

Dreams Built and Broken: On Ada Louise Huxtable

Dreams Built and Broken: On Ada Louise Huxtable

How an architecture critic made New York City her touchstone for discussions of public space.


Ever since 1963, the year she became the first architecture critic for The New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable had been warning of the tragedy in store when the old Pennsylvania Station would be razed to make way for Madison Square Garden. The tragedy came three years later when the wrecking balls started battering the fifty-six-year-old building, which was designed by McKim, Mead & White and had been a worthy West Side pendant to Grand Central Terminal, now celebrating its centenary. The station’s vaulted, skylit concourse, travertine interiors and by then soot-stained murals of the Pennsylvania territory were reduced to rubble and dust. As Huxtable wrote in her obituary for the building, published on July 14 of that year, Penn Station “succumbed to progress this week…after a lingering decline. The building’s one remaining facade was shorn of eagles and ornament yesterday, preparatory to leveling the last wall. It went not with a bang, or a whimper, but to the rustle of real estate stock shares.”

Before the destruction of Penn Station, New York City had no municipal body that could overrule an owner’s desire for redevelopment on the grounds of quality. Huxtable saw in the fall of the eagles both the ascendancy of “real estate values”—cities groomed by private financial interests rather than shaped by coordinated public planning—and the end of investment in grand public spaces. Penn Station’s replacement would be “not Roman Imperial, but Investment Modern.”

Huxtable’s essay was titled “A Vision of Rome Dies,” and it is difficult to read it today without an arched brow. It still communicates the sting of a fifty-year-old slight to the city Huxtable loved and whose cityscape she had sworn herself to protect. In a 2009 episode of Mad Men, executives at Madison Square Garden, which would soon be built above the new Penn Station like a giant air filter atop a concrete bunker, meet with the show’s ad men about how best to neutralize the preservationists. One begins to read a few lines from Huxtable’s 1963 Times review of the proposal to build the Garden on the site of the old station (“How to Kill a City”), and the exec cuts him off. “Ada Louise Huxtable is as green as that folder,” he says. “People know she’s an angry woman with a big mouth.”

Big mouth? Yes, if volume is measured in circulation. By making the case for architecture criticism as an essential beat for a metropolitan newspaper, by turning buildings into news and serving on the Times’s editorial board, Huxtable enjoyed a career that epitomized the argument she would repeatedly make in print: architecture is “the art we cannot afford to ignore.” Her irreverent tone, her lean, pointed prose and her willingness to follow the story wherever it led her—to politics and money, to urban history and feats of engineering—made her a critic admired by colleagues who agreed about little else. She approached buildings as a journalist, adapting her style and method to the occasion, and without ever losing sight of her core constituency: the public, who would use the urban fabric, tattered or rehabilitated, long after she was gone.

Angry? No. Huxtable lost the battle over Penn Station, but her side won the larger war. In 1965, New York City passed the Landmarks Law, which created the Landmarks Preservation Commission, a municipal body that could rule on which properties, privately owned or not, were worthy of saving from demolition as part of the public good. While championing the work of modern architects, Huxtable simultaneously expressed the contemporary rationale for preservation, arguing against what she called “Williamsburging”—as in Colonial Virginia, that is, not Brooklyn (at least not back then). For a building to be worth preserving, it had to have a continuing relationship to the life of the city, to be able to stand on its own two feet. Penn Station met that standard; buildings constructed later, like 2 Columbus Circle, would not. Huxtable could be nostalgic but she was never sentimental, and she was capable of being surprised by design.

New York was always her touchstone, but she regularly assessed the built environments of other cities, describing their particular urbanisms, where they were going wrong (in the 1970s, they all seemed to be going wrong) and how their downtowns might be revitalized. Mixed in with reviews of buildings by famous names are visits to other cities (“Ugly Cities and How They Grow,” on Syracuse, New York; and “Space City Odyssey: If you don’t live in Houston, your city may be obsolete”). She defended the brutalist Boston City Hall for all of its forty-five years. She made her mark on Los Angeles too, serving first on the Architect Selection Committee and the Design Advisory Committee for the Getty Center (1983–1990), then for the Getty Villa (1993–2006), and championing Frank Gehry. (The Getty acquired her archives before her death and was the beneficiary of her estate.) Analysis, rather than the promotion of starchitects, was her aim, and a prodigious amount of research underlies her early, punchy pronouncements as well as her late, magisterial style.

* * *

With its broad staircase, elegant statuary, monumental columns and great public rooms, the old Penn Station was a fine example of Beaux-Arts, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century architectural style imported from France. Huxtable grew up in a Beaux-Arts world. Her family lived in the St. Urban, an elegant twelve-story apartment building on Central Park West with a high mansard roof and a corner tower topped with a copper dome. She would go to another Beaux-Arts building, Grand Central Terminal, on a Friday afternoon to take the Merchants’ Limited to Boston. She would walk across Central Park to yet another, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where “the steps invited rather than repelled,” as she wrote in a 1975 Times essay about Beaux-Arts. At the University Club, “a Renaissance superpalazzo,” she was turned aside into the “ladies” dining room, an insult that she took to be “as much architectural as personal.” It is hard to imagine a better childhood for an architecture critic, one who took architectural insults to her city personally and made the fostering of public access and public discussion of architecture central to her arguments.

Huxtable studied art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU and worked as an assistant curator in the architecture and design department at the Museum of Modern Art from 1946 to 1950. She traveled to Italy on a Fulbright fellowship in the early 1950s to study the work of Italian modernist engineer Pier Luigi Nervi, the subject of a book she published in 1960. Her criticism was grounded in history, including the then-recent history of modernism, and her academic interests seeded her journalism. In 1957, she sent the Times a letter responding to a positive review of a photography exhibit on a modernist housing project in Caracas, Venezuela. She had seen the buildings; they looked good, but she also noticed how they failed their occupants and their city. Her letter—which was printed in full—revealed her critical eye; the paper hired her first as a freelancer, then as full-time architectural critic, the first at any American newspaper. In 1970, she won the first Pulitzer Prize in the new category “distinguished criticism or commentary.” In 1981, she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant and resigned from the Times, writing books on skyscrapers and authenticity in architecture. She couldn’t stay away from the rhythm of newspaper criticism, however, and was the architecture critic at The Wall Street Journal from 1997 until her death on January 7, 2013, at the age of 91.

Her interest in engineering proved to be a cornerstone of her criticism, and an essay from 2011 stands out as a statement of principle on the subject. In “Why One Remained Standing,” on Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque, a library in Japan designed as a transparent cube and completed in 2001, Huxtable describes a video of the library taken during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami: “The building shook and swayed violently; everything cascaded from shelves and desks onto the floor. Ceiling panels appeared to swing drunkenly overhead.” But the building did not collapse. She wrote, with typical bluntness: “It would be easy to call the Mediatheque’s survival a miracle, but it would be wrong.”

The Mediatheque survived because Ito and engineer Mutsuro Sasaki created a structure both eye-catching and resilient. Huxtable breaks down their collaboration for her readers, explaining that the inspiration for the engineering was “floating seaweed”: long, unmoored strands that are strong but not rigid. Engineer and architect translated those natural dynamics into a series of twisting steel-lattice columns attached to a grid of beams that could deform without breaking. Thicker, hollow columns at the corners were designed to channel seismic forces down to the ground. From the outside, it looks as if the wavy columns might be dangling from thin, flat floors; their appearance belies their strength. The concept echoed ideas about building for instability explored by Frank Lloyd Wright and his engineer, Paul Mueller, in the design and construction of the Tokyo Imperial Hotel, which survived the Kanto earthquake in 1923. During the 2011 earthquake, the Mediatheque swayed and so did not shatter. Huxtable’s point was that architecture—even the unfamiliar forms of modern and contemporary architecture that she championed—is not structurally risky if design is the outcome of thoughtful, rational collaboration between architect and engineer.

As a Pritzker Prize juror from 1987 to 2005, Huxtable was able to study such collaborations around the world, at a moment when architecture was changing anew. If in her first decade as a critic she had focused on explaining and defending sleek modern architecture, in the latter decades of her career she would do the same for exuberant contemporary forms. Writing for The New York Review of Books in 1995, Huxtable grouped the work of Frank Gehry, the French architect Christian de Portzamparc and the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza (all of whom received Pritzkers during her time on the jury) under the label “The New Architecture.” What she saw in the work of the three stylistically and geographically diverse architects was an exit from debates about modernism and postmodernism—a true reinvention of the profession. Movement within buildings was a central part of their design, determining form and creating new types of relationships between spaces; the exterior would come later. She was thrilled at times but could not tamp down her natural skepticism. About Gehry’s work, she wrote, “I found myself an uneasy admirer of these spaces, trapped between acceptance and rejection, fascinated by their superb drama and put off by the way their uses were made subservient to an overwhelming but gloriously willful aesthetic.” The engineering had to serve a functional purpose, and the building had to have a positive effect on the city in which it stood. Looks were not enough. The Guggenheim Bilbao, she thought, achieved that equilibrium:

The container and the contained, the art and the architecture, are one thing, made for each other; nowhere else do all of the arts support and play off one another in a unified aesthetic that so fully expresses the 20th century. The setting is as significant as the art; the whole is the superb sum of its parts.

* * *

Scrutiny of the engineering beneath a building’s skin is the hallmark of Huxtable’s last piece of criticism, on the New York Public Library, published on December 3, 2012. Huxtable had been thinking about the library—in the library—for most of her life. In her Beaux-Arts essay she wrote, “Another beautiful Beaux Arts building became a friend. It made no pretense at chumminess; it was intended to impress; but, again, it worked.” The seesaw between aesthetics and practicalities, form and function, achieved a point of equilibrium at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Thus, when the NYPL announced its plans to renovate the Carrère and Hastings building as part of its Central Library Plan [see “Upheaval at the New York Public Library,” December 19, 2011], Huxtable was deeply interested in the outcome. For months she pursued the story, looking at the original drawings for the building, speaking with engineers, evaluating arguments by scholars over the plans to move the holdings of the circulating and business libraries into the main branch—long dedicated to research—and to move millions of the “least used” books offsite to New Jersey. In August, September, October and November, she asked the library for drawings of its plans. The library refused to release them. In December she wrote, “I have been patient and cooperative, but I believe I have waited long enough.” Her last published work is an aria of thoroughly researched propulsive frustration, laced with unanswered questions.

Central to her attack was her appreciation of the guts of the building, the seven floors of stacks beneath the voluminous Rose Reading Room on the third floor. The Central Library Plan calls for demolishing the stacks in order to add a circulating library with views of Bryant Park, new work spaces and facilities for young people. What “no one seems to have noticed, or mentioned, is that the stacks are the structural support of the reading room. They literally hold it up.” The design of the stacks, a steel cage that supports the reading room, filled in with iron shelving, was the idea of the NYPL’s first librarian, John Shaw Billings. The concept was turned into architecture by Columbia’s William R. Ware and presented as a fact to the architects competing to design the rest of the building. The library grew up and outward from this engineered core, which manifested the principle of minimizing the distance between reader and book.

The rest, as Huxtable wrote, “is not just window dressing.” The “wonderful spatial relationships and rich detail” designed by Carrère and Hastings “are intimately tied to the building’s remarkable functional rationale.” To disrupt the relationship between the ceremonial and the practical would be destructive: first, because of the enormously complex engineering required to hold up the reading room while the stacks were removed, and second, by “altering its meaning and mission.” She saw no snobbery in separating research from circulation; these different requirements need different spaces, different connections. Huxtable rejected the Central Library Plan as “a hollowed-out hybrid of new and old” and called on the NYPL to retrofit the stacks and build a new library on the site of the Mid-Manhattan Library (a circulating branch library) across the street, something “dramatically contemporary and flexible enough to accommodate rapid technological change.” (Something like the Sendai Mediatheque, perhaps.)

Two weeks after Huxtable’s essay was published, the library released a set of renderings, which revealed little about the future of the stacks, and which several other critics complained looked like a Barnes & Noble. It was too little, too late.

The New York Public Library was only the last of the many buildings Huxtable revisited in her writing. Her death removes a passionate and particular voice from the shrinking ranks of full-time architecture critics, but also represents a loss of institutional memory for architecture culture in general, and for the built history of New York. Time and again she had been able to say, of buildings up for demolition, renovation or radical surgery: I was there. The first of these, in a sense, was Pennsylvania Station, a building of her youth destroyed in her middle age.

A better outcome occurred at Lincoln Center, which she described in 1966 with deadly accuracy as “a failure of nerve, imagination and talent.” Twentieth-century architecture was at an exciting point, she wrote, except at 66th Street and Broadway, where travertine and colonnades had been applied like giftwrap to ordinary boxes. It was a culture island, cut off from the city by virtue of its raised podium, and cut off from the creation of culture by virtue of the unchallenging nature of its architecture and programming. When Lincoln Center undertook a series of renovations, Huxtable did not join preservationists who wanted the complex preserved as it was. In a 2009 Wall Street Journal column, “Lincoln Center Rejoins the City,” she praised the efforts of Diller Scofidio + Renfro in reversing “most of the original assumptions about a cultural center as something elevated and elite.” Car lanes were depressed below grade, a concrete pedestrian walkway was replaced with a slender glass one, and new stairs provided access off 65th Street. Alice Tully Hall was opened up in front with glass and a café added. Huxtable wrote, in what sounds as much like a wish as an observation, “What was exclusive, forbidding and opaque will become inclusive, inviting and open.” You can argue, with the preservationists, that Lincoln Center should have been landmarked. You can argue that it could have been modified with a different, less angular style. But it is hard to argue with Huxtable’s underlying emphasis: bridges had been built to an island, and some urban life added back in.

Though Huxtable often talked of the art of architecture, she often meant nothing more, or less, than what worked to make cities lively, understandable and accessible at street level. Her early columns reflect the observations of the keenest pedestrian, following in the footsteps, in some sense, of Lewis Mumford’s “The Sky Line” column in The New Yorker. In “Park Avenue School of Architecture,” published in The New York Times Magazine in 1957, she walks through the rubble that will become midcentury modern Park Avenue:

Pedestrians pick their way through dust and debris, past temporary fences put together out of discarded (and still oddly personal) apartment house doors…. As the old buildings disappear radical new ones rise immediately in their place, and the pattern of progress becomes clear: business palaces replace private palaces; soap aristocracy supplants social aristocracy; sleek towers of steel-framed blue, green, or gray-tinted glass give the avenue a glamorous and glittering new look.

In “Sometimes We Do It Right,” written in 1968, she was charged with reviewing Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Marine Midland Building, the latest in the firm’s series of suave, sophisticated curtain-wall skyscrapers in the city. She spent only a few paragraphs discussing the building, and instead devoted the bulk of the column to describing a walk around the block and taking in the downtown scene of fake Florentine palazzos and facades decorated like French pastries, early skyscrapers and recent neighbors like SOM’s own Chase Manhattan Plaza. What she wanted to draw attention to was the mix of ages, heights and relationships with the street that make a city’s public spaces fascinating: “Space is meaningless without scale, containment, boundaries and direction…. This is planning.”

As Huxtable wrote in the introduction to Kicked a Building Lately?, a collection of her Times articles published in 1976, she preferred the reality of this kind of urban structure over time to the utopian simplicity of cultural monuments like Lincoln Center. She preferred the construction fences, the muck and the rubble. Even the title of that collection reflects her manner of asking a question in a deflating way. She might ask, of an architectural ego, “Is he serious?”

* * *

Huxtable’s preference for cities designed by many hands was tested again in the aftermath of 9/11. In 1966, she called Minoru Yamasaki’s design for the Twin Towers “the world’s daintiest architecture for the world’s biggest buildings.” It wasn’t the plans for the towers themselves that bothered her (or not entirely), but rather the questionable choice of the raised, windswept plaza that joined them. “We do not believe in embalming or Williamsburging the New York skyline…. What we do believe in is the absolute necessity of relating these corporate and speculative status symbols to the needs, functions and uses of the city at ground level.” This was her creed, stated as if it were a fact, even though politicians, developers and sometimes even architects were arrayed against her. Huxtable was never afraid to describe the city as it should be, from the ground up. She didn’t offer compromise positions. She eschewed utopias but not ideals.

After the wreckage of the towers was removed, there was an opportunity to construct something better suited to the downtown that had grown around the Twin Towers and the needs of New York as a whole, in addition to an appropriate memorial. Huxtable didn’t bet on it. On September 17, 2001, she distilled years of knowledge about politics, people and the willful direction planning can take into an alarmingly prescient description in The Wall Street Journal of what would happen: the push and pull of better angels and real estate interests, the selection of a “world-class” office building of the most conservative design, and a memorial that might quickly turn into a lunch spot for office workers. She was correct about the politics: the interaction among well-meaning civic watchdogs, investors and the government officials caught in the middle. The quality of all seven of the designs proposed for the site in 2003 raised her hopes. Replacing the square footage in the two towers was the stated priority, but each set of architects made the memorial integral to their planning rather than an afterthought. Huxtable supported Daniel Libeskind’s scheme of spiraling, crystalline towers that seemed to lead to the memorial, arguing that it was the only one to combine the conflicting elements of the design brief (rebuilding, remembering) into a convincing, central public space. She wrote, “You could tell by the sustained applause and tears that this is what people really wanted, and what New York needs.”

But as the fight to rebuild at Ground Zero progressed, she grew demoralized, and reading these columns in her last collection, On Architecture, I did too. From the hopes she pinned on the adoption of Libeskind’s plan—a solution that showed architecture could address disaster and mend a hole in the heart of the city—to the denouement, it is a matter of pages, and two long years. In “Death of the Dream for the Ground-Zero Site,” published April 20, 2005, she calls the elimination of the performing arts center from the master plan a betrayal. Four original components of the plan should have been sacrosanct: the spiraling ring of buildings, the exposed slurry wall, the arts and cultural sites, and the public spaces meant to return life to the streets. They were disappearing one by one. The cultural buildings were the key element of revival in her view, a chance to improve downtown. The office buildings were for commerce, the memorial for the past. She wrote, in despairing tones, “At Ground Zero, what should be first is last. An affirmation of life is being reduced to a culture of death.”

For Huxtable, hope in architecture sprang eternal. In the spring of 2012, in what would be her second-to-last building review, she took a car from her Upper East Side apartment to Philadelphia and toured the new Barnes Collection with its architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. They had already started moving the art out of the old Barnes, which she had never visited; ever thorough, she made arrangements to see that building too. Relocating the Barnes from Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, to the city proper, against the written wishes of the collection’s founder, was an endlessly contentious process—one that many believed could not but end badly. In Huxtable’s review, she acknowledged the lawsuits, the breaking of Dr. Albert Barnes’s will, the handcuffing of the architects designing the new building to the original sequence of rooms in Merion. She stated her longtime “distaste for the Disneyfication of reality.” And yet, when she walked through the new building:

So how does it feel to have one’s core beliefs turned upside down? The “new” Barnes that contains the “old” Barnes shouldn’t work, but it does. It should be inauthentic, but it’s not. It has changed, but it is unchanged. The architects have succeeded in retaining its identity and integrity without resorting to a slavishly literal reproduction. This is a beautiful building that does not compromise its contemporary convictions or upstage the treasure inside. And it isn’t alchemy. It’s architecture.

The role of the critic is to tangle with reality—its politics, players, construction, destruction—to remain skeptical but not cynical, to have strong opinions but be open to being wrong. The reason Huxtable’s criticism continues to resonate is that she never let her opinions grow stale. One can disagree with her conclusions, but rarely with her identification of the central question. As history brought highlights (Lever House) and lowlights (Lincoln Center) back around, she gave them, as with the Barnes, more than a second glance. Huxtable ended her Beaux-Arts essay looking out her window across 42nd Street: “I raise my eyes for an architecture-break in a city that is as heartbreaking in its beauty as it is in its poverty and decay. It is still a city of dreams—promised, built, and broken.”

Alyssa Katz and Francis Reynolds look at the evolution of the World Trade Center site and the surrounding architecture of lower Manhattan. Read all of the articles in The Nation's special issue on New York City.

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