Huxtable, Ada Louise

views updated May 18 2018

Ada Louise Huxtable

Ada Louise Huxtable (born 1921), chief architecture critic of the New York Times from 1963 to 1982, has been a consistent and sharp-edged advocate for high standards in architecture and urban design. Her books and her often-collected newspaper columns reflect a passionate concern with the urban environment of her native New York, a keen eye for history as manifested in buildings, and a strong belief in historic preservation at a time when the concept was still fairly new.

Huxtable's pen had an acid tip. Some real estate developers, she admitted to Marilyn Hoffman of the Christian Science Monitor, considered her to be "public enemy No. 1," and others "would be glad to have my head on a platter." Even Huxtable's admirers conceded that she sometimes had a too-opinionated streak and yet her detractors conceded that she was ardently devoted to the cause of good design. Something of an intellectual in action, Huxtable had an impressive record of saving landmark buildings from demolition, and lovers of New York City's classic streetscapes have much to thank her for.

Home Demolished

Huxtable was born Ada Louise Landman on March 14, 1921, in New York City, and has remained a lifelong resident there. Her father, Michael Louis Landman, was a doctor. It appeared that, from a very young age, Huxtable knew what career path she would eventually take. She recalled to Hoffman, "I seemed to have a sense of urbanization and of building from the time I began to have reactions at all. I have always loved cities; I've always been concerned about them. I like buildings and think of them as the cultural and historical roots of a city." For much of her youth, Huxtable lived in an apartment building on posh Central Park West. The seeds of her future interest in historical preservation were sown, perhaps, when she had to move out of an East Side building because it was slated to be torn down.

Attending Hunter College (now part of the City University of New York), Huxtable majored in art and architecture history and she graduated magna cum laude in 1941. She went on for graduate study in those fields at the Institute of Fine Arts, a division of New York University. Working as a furniture display assistant and salesperson at Bloomingdale's department store during the Museum of Modern Art's Organic Design furniture competition, she got a taste of cutting-edge design. In 1942 she married industrial designer L. Garth Huxtable. The two often worked together; Garth Huxtable brought a sense of nuts-and-bolts reality to his wife's otherwise quite ideological columns, and Huxtable opened up contacts that helped make her husband well known in his field. Under severe time pressure the pair created a set of 140 tableware items for the restaurant in New York's famed Seagram's building, a landmark structure designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson.

Huxtable continued to study at the Institute of Fine Arts, but her coursework tailed off after she found a job in her field as assistant curator of architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1946. "I never set myself a course or an ambition or a career," she told F. Paul Driscoll of Opera News. "One thing sort of led to another." She wrote exhibition display texts, helped to set up exhibitions, including one in her field of Italian design, and worked on scholarly articles. In 1950 Huxtable received a Fulbright fellowship and left the Museum of Modern Art to go to Italy for further design and architecture studies. Her fellowship was renewed in 1952, and she remained in Italy for another two years.

Back in New York City, Huxtable wrote freelance articles about architecture for both academic and general interest publications. She worked on a book about Pier Luigi Nervi, an Italian architect and engineer, finishing it with the help of a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in 1958. The book was well reviewed when it appeared in 1960, but Huxtable was becoming disenchanted with the limited reach of scholarly writing. "It's nonsense just to write scholarly papers for other scholars," she said in a House Beautiful interview quoted in Contemporary Authors. When she was writing for a newspaper audience, she said, "I'm not selling pretty or ugly buildings. I'm dealing with the environment."

Pioneered Newspaper Architecture Criticism

Some newspapers, including the New York Times, included writing about architecture in the early 1960s, but it appeared on an irregular basis and was generally relegated to the advertising-heavy real estate section. In 1962 the Times was in need of an architecture writer because part-time contributor Aline Loucheim had married top architect Eero Saarinen, and thus was thought to have a conflict of interest. Loucheim recommended Huxtable to Sunday Times editor Lester Markel. When Huxtable joined the Times staff in 1963, she became the first full-time architecture writer in American newspaper journalism. In the words of Carole Rifkind, writing in Metropolis, Huxtable "virtually created architectural journalism in America."

Huxtable believed that she filled a need. "People are better informed about art" than about architecture, she reflected to Driscoll. "They are capable of understanding art in a way that they do not understand architecture. People will look at a building and say, 'What's good about that?' Well, what's 'good' starts with purpose and structure, with expressiveness, with how creative the architect is in taking the bones of a building and turning it into a concept of some originality, or something exquisitely proportioned." Huxtable, who wrote her columns in longhand, required some time to get used to the fast pace of a daily newspaper, but once she hit her stride, her polemical columns often were placed on the front page.

A typical Huxtable column, quoted in Newsweek, bemoaned the cookie-cutter suburban developments that were springing up along New York's edges. "The promise of … a new, improved suburbia in the greater metropolitan area, the dreams of beauty and better living are mired in mud," Huxtable wrote. New "ugly and expensive" developments on Staten Island "could not be better calculated to destroy the countryside if … planned by enemy action." Huxtable's take-no-prisoners style garnered her a host of awards in the late 1960s, including a Front Page award from the Newspaper Women's Club of New York in 1965 and a medal for architectural criticism from the American Institute of Architects in 1969. By no means a curmudgeon, Huxtable also praised monuments of modern architecture by the likes of I.M. Pei and Robert Venturi. She was at her most effective when advocating for the preservation of historic structures, during an era when historic-district zoning was still far in the future. Her campaign to save the original 1903 Pennsylvania Station train terminal was unsuccessful (although a part of the building was incorporated into the new design), but she was credited with prodding the city government to implement new preservation statutes.

In 1973 Huxtable moved from the third floor of the Times offices to the tenth and joined the paper's editorial board, becoming only the second woman named to that body. A testimonial dinner held in her honor featured speeches even from some of the architects she had severely criticized. Times editor John B. Oakes, quoted in the New Yorker, gave attendees a glimpse of Huxtable's self-assured personality, describing her as "unpredictable, perhaps; uncontrollable, certainly; unerring in her aim; undeviating in her standards; unshaken in her principles; undaunted in her courage; and, I might add, unflinching in her attack on the editor who dares to tamper with her copy. You think this frail little wisp of a woman needs protection? Try to cut a line from a Huxtable editorial and, as one of her former colleagues once observed, you'll find she needs protection like Attila the Hun."

Received MacArthur "Genius" Grant

Huxtable's best columns of the 1960s were collected into a book called Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard? in 1970, and she retained her loyal following through three more essay collections, Kicked a Building Lately? (1976), Architecture, Anyone? (1986), and Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger (also 1986). Despite her tendency toward sharp critique she could also be optimistic; Kicked a Building Lately? recounted some of the successes of the historic preservation movement. She deplored, however, the ways in which a city could milk a historic district for maximum profit, which had the effect of "canning" it (as she was quoted as saying in Metropolis)—sealing it off from the surrounding landscape. Her Times columns were as avidly read as ever. In 1981, however, Huxtable received a major award that changed the course of her career: the MacArthur Foundation fellowship (popularly known as a "genius grant") was a no-strings-attached $200,000 cash award (later increased to $500,000) designed to allow creative individuals to pursue their ideas unfettered by financial concerns. Huxtable left the Times in 1982 and began writing full-time.

Huxtable's 1984 book The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style was both a history of the skyscraper and an appreciation of its numerous practitioners of the 1950s and 1960s. Huxtable admired the spare glass boxes of such architects as Holland's Mies van der Rohe, and she disparaged the more playful postmodern style that followed it. In her 1997 book The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, Huxtable trained her rhetorical fire directly on postmodernism in a broad-based commentary, examining large projects such as colonial Williamsburg and Disneyland, and arguing that architects and designers were leading Americans to prefer illusion over reality.

The profusion of neo-traditional housing developments such as the Disney Corporation's model town of Celebration, Florida, came in for a healthy dose of Huxtable scorn. In her attack on postmodernism, however, Huxtable was swimming against the intellectual tides of the 1990s, for modernism had rapidly fallen out of favor. The Unreal America attracted some negative reviews, including one in the New York Times itself and another in Architecture, in which Diane Ghirardo opined that "Huxtable's quintessentially elitist perspective recognizes no possible alternative: Elitist culture is the best; everything else is but a pale reflection." Other critics continued to praise Huxtable, however, and she did express admiration for some contemporary architects, including Frank Gehry.

As the century turned, Huxtable was as active as ever. She served on the jury for the annual Pritzker Architecture Prize. An opera fan, she was a familiar figure at cultural events in New York City. In 1997 she began to write newspaper architecture columns once again, this time for the Wall Street Journal, and in 2004 she published Frank Lloyd Wright, a biographical study of the iconoclastic American architect, a commentary on his work, and an attempt to link his unusual life story with his career. Living in an apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan, Huxtable roosted atop the world of American architecture writing.


Architecture May 1997.

Booklist, November 1, 2004.

Christian Science Monitor, April 9, 1969.

Newsweek, August 23, 1965.

New Yorker, December 17, 1973.

Opera News, July 1999.

Smithsonian, June 1987.


"Faking It," Metropolis, (January 21, 2006).

"L. Garth Huxtable: Design Work in the 1950s,"∼rroeder/huxtable/1950s.htm (January 21, 2006).

Huxtable, Ada Louise

views updated Jun 08 2018

HUXTABLE, Ada Louise

Born circa 1920s, New York, New York

Daughter of Michael L. and Leah Rosenthal Landman; married L. Garth Huxtable, circa 1942

Ada Louise Huxtable was born and raised in Manhattan, where her passion for cities and buildings flourished. She edited the student newspaper at Wadleigh High School, Manhattan's high school for music and arts. At Hunter College, she majored in fine arts, was elected Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year, and graduated magna cum laude. Huxtable has said she "never chose a career. I began as a scholar, writing and researching for my own pleasure and enrichment in a field that was of great interest to me." She has always found immense personal satisfaction in that academic research.

In 1946 she became assistant curator for architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art. She worked there until accepting a Fulbright scholarship in 1950 (and in 1952) for study and advanced research in architecture and design in Italy.

Her writing on art and architecture has been published in Art Digest, Progressive Architecture (where she was a contributing editor for almost 10 years), Art in America (again, a contributing editor for a decade), Interiors, Arts, and Architectural Review. Her work has also appeared in popular magazines such as Consumer Reports, Holiday, Horizon, and Saturday Review.

One of the many publications carrying her bylined articles in the 1950s was the New York Times magazine. In 1963, as her articles appeared with greater frequency, she was asked to take the newly created and prestigious post of architecture critic for the New York Times.

Influential in the founding of New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965, she defines preservation as "the retention and active relationship of the buildings of the past to the community's functioning present." The director of New York's office of midtown planning and development has said he "would consciously go out of my way to get her advice on issues…she has such a keen understanding of the politics, the money, and the realities involved in any given situation that I can treat her as a peer."

Her books include Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City (1961), published by the Museum of Modern Art, and Classic New York: Georgian Gentility to Greek Elegance (1964). Both were intended as part of a six-volume series and represent years of painstaking research and personal reflections.

Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard? (1970, 1972) is a collection of her articles from the Times. In one edition, her publishers labeled it "a primer on urbicide" as no one is immune from her caustic evaluations. She called the Pan Am building "a prime example of a New York specialty: the big, the expedient, and the deathlessly ordinary."

Huxtable is an outstanding authority on urbanism. Besides being a member of the New York Times editorial board and winning the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, she has received many significant awards from professional and cultural organizations and more than a dozen honorary degrees. The Wall Street Journal has noted her ability to get "everyone—the builders included—eating out of her hand and telling her everything she wants to know. Then she retreats behind a closed door and out comes this very gutsy critique."

Huxtable has no fear of attacking big city interests, such as building speculators and real estate developers, when the occasion warrants. Her work has been both praised and damned by the reading public; it is trenchant, lively, precise, and—clearly—influential.

Other Works:

Pier Luigi Nervi (1960). Kicked a Building Lately? (1976, 1988). Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger: An Anthology of Architectural Delights and Disasters (1986). Architecture Anyone? (1988). The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered (1992). Inventing Reality: Architectural Themes and Variations (1993). The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion (1997).


Angeletti, M., "The Architectural Criticism of Ada Louise Huxtable" (thesis, 1995). Diamondstein, B., Open Secrets (1971). Lloyd, J., Ada Louise Huxtable: A Case Study (1975). Papadakes, A., Architecture of Today (1997). Papadakes, A., A Decade of Architectural Design (1991). Williams, H. M., ed., Making Architecture: The Getty Center (1997). Wodehouse, L., Ada Louise Huxtable, An Annotated Bibliography (1981).

Reference works:

CB (1973). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Architectural Record (Apr. 1993, May 1993). ARTnews (1997). CSM (9 Apr. 1969, 11 Nov. 1973). Harper's Bazaar (Aug. 1972). House Beautiful (Sept. 1970). Interior Design (Feb. 1993). Metropolis (1998). New York (3 Nov. 1975). Newsweek (23 Aug. 1965). NY (17 Dec. 1973). NYT (5 May 1970, 26 Sept. 1973, 2 Jan. 1975, 13 Mar. 1977, 29 Sept. 1977). Opera News (July 1999). WSJ (7 Nov. 1972).


Huxtable, Ada Louise Landman

views updated May 23 2018

Huxtable, Ada Louise Landman (1921– ). American architectural critic. She established her reputation with a series of trenchant articles in the New York Times from 1963, but before then had published her monograph on Pier Luigi Nervi (1960) and many articles in various journals. Her love of her native city was expressed in Classic New York: Georgian Gentility to Greek Elegance (1964), and her forth-right writings have assailed the insupportable hideousness of many aspects of American cities: indeed, her Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard? (1970) has been described as a ‘Primer on Urbicide’. A passionate conservationist, she was a major figure in the creation of a Landmarks Preservation Commission for New York City in 1965 to resist the ‘blind mutilation’, as she called it, ‘in the name of urban renewal’. She also championed excellence in contemporary architecture, denouncing the ‘big, the expedient, and the deathlessly ordinary’, and making plain her exasperation with the General Services Administration (the body in charge of all Federal construction in the USA) for proliferating banality. She made her admiration for Mies van der Rohe clear, and has called the skyscraper one of the ‘great technological and architectural achievements of our civilization’. Her The Tall Building Artistically Considered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style (1982, 1984) is a major study of the subject. Pevsner described her as ‘the best architectural critic’ of his time.


Huxtable (1960, 1960a, 1961, 1964, 1970, 1976, 1984, 1986, 1986a, 1997)