Ada Louise Huxtable, who passed away yesterday at the age of 91, lived through a lion’s share of modern architectural history. A New Yorker from birth until death, Huxtable saw–and praised, destroyed, and struggled for–many of the most important buildings of the 20th century. According to The New York Times, she died on Monday in Manhattan.
Huxtable was The New York Times’ first architecture critic–a post they created for her after Aline Saarinen bowed out of her sometimes-critic’s seat, citing her marriage to Eero as a conflict of interest. Huxtable was a child during the birth of the International Style, a teen through New York’s Art Deco dalliance, and a young adult during the construction of New York’s great corporate architecture. She had a kind of scope and even-handedness, always a watcher of the city before a critic of the city. And when she did critique, she pulled no punches.
Huxtable won the Pulitzer for her Times criticism in 1970 and left the paper in the ’80s. Yesterday in their obituary, the Grey Lady reflected on their very first architecture critic:
Feared by some architects, loathed by some developers and not universally admired by scholars, Ms. Huxtable was nonetheless “a darling of the public,” Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman wrote in New York 1960, published in 1995.
Her exacting standards were well enough known to be a punch line for a New Yorker cartoon by Alan Dunn in 1968. It shows a construction site so raw that only a single steel column has been erected. A hard-hat worker holding a newspaper tells the architect, “Ada Louise Huxtable already doesn’t like it!”
Huxtable mixed a love of the new with a weariness of the cheap thrills of starchitecture–a position that could be difficult to parse. “When you combine new technologies with loosening all the dogmatic rules of modernism, you have opened the world wide to greatness and horror,” she said in 2008. Yet she refused to pile on the figures many of her younger colleagues villainized, adding, “Don’t blame it all on Frank Gehry. Gehry is legit; what he did at Bilbao is superb.” Rather, Huxtable championed a more thoughtful, holistic approach to criticism: What is this building doing for the city? How do its inhabitants feel about it? And does it push technical limits? “What animated and sustained her were not the mistakes but the triumphs,” the Times notes.
After nearly a century of life as a New Yorker, Huxtable was still torn between her love for New York’s fast metabolism (“here we practice the art of the deal, not the art of the city”) and her strong criticism of its developers (“you can do terrible things with architecture”). In December, she wrote a scathing critique of Foster + Partners’ plans for the renovation of the New York Public Library. Yet she navigated such murky issues with grace, relying on a deceptively simple mantra. “My basic preservation philosophy is this,” she quipped in 2008. “Change it but don’t destroy it.”