Huxtable, Ada Louise (1921—)
Huxtable, Ada Louise (1921—)
American architectural critic for The New York Times (1963–1981) who won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism. Born Ada Louise Landman on March 14, 1921, in New York City; only child of Michael Louis Landman (a physician) and Leah (Rosenthal) Landman; graduated from Wadleigh High School (Manhattan's high school of music and art); Hunter College B.A. (magna cum laude); attended the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, 1945–1950; married L. Garth Huxtable (an industrial designer), in 1940.
Born in 1921, Ada Huxtable was raised in New York City, which fostered her acute sense of the urban environment. An only child who was fatherless by age of seven, she spent many solitary hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "If I had not had free access as a child to this museum," she later said, "I would not have developed my interests in art and architecture." After graduating from Wadleigh High School (Manhattan's high school of music and art), she entered Hunter College, where she majored in fine arts and edited the school newspaper. Graduating magna cum laude, she went on to advanced studies in art and architectural history at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, but quit just short of her degree when her master's thesis topic on Italian architecture was rejected.
In 1946, after a brief stint selling furniture at Bloomingdale's, Huxtable took a position as assistant curator of the department of architecture and design of the Museum of Modern Art. She left in 1950 to accept a Fulbright fellowship for advanced research in architecture and design in Italy. Upon her return in 1952, she organized a touring exhibit on architect Pier Luigi Nervi for the museum and published her first article on Nervi for Progressive Architecture (of which she was a contributing editor from 1952 to 1963). Over the next few years, she also produced articles for Arts Digest, Craft Horizons, and Interiors, as well as for non-professional journals, including Consumer Reports, Holiday, Horizon, and Saturday Review. Architectural events on the local New York scene also engaged her and were the subject of two books during this period: Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City (1961) and Classic New York; Georgian Gentility to Greek Elegance (1964). Huxtable planned the later book as the first of a six-volume series on the history of New York architecture designed to "open the way to a more general appreciation of a wider range of the city's architecture, and to the kind of preservation that will make the past a proper part of the present and future."
Huxtable's ambitious book project was interrupted by an invitation to join The New York Times as a full-time architectural critic, a first-of-its-kind position created on the strength of her frequent and well-received contributions to The New York Times Magazine. Huxtable initially turned down the offer. "Most people are bright enough to calculate the angles, about where such a job would lead them," she explained, "but I was just interested in my own work, and was afraid how the job would change my life." However, when the paper threatened to hire someone else for the position, Huxtable reconsidered. She remained with the Times for 18 years, advancing to the editorial board in 1973. Susan Torre , who discusses Huxtable in Women in American Architecture, considers her a powerful influence who "shifted the public's appreciation of architecture from a dignified dilettantism to major concern." Jane Holtz Kay , of the Christian Science Monitor, referred to Huxtable as "the major person in architecture criticism," adding that "there is no number two." She also credited her with opening up the field to women.
In addition to educating the public, Huxtable used her editorials—or "appraisals," as the Times referred to them—to address thoughtless demolition in the name of urban renewal and the deterioration in the quality of public architecture. "You must love a country very much to be as little satisfied with it as she is," wrote Daniel P. Moynihan in the preface to Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?, a collection of Huxtable's Times articles published in 1970. "You must wish very great things for a nation to be so insistent in pointing out how little prepared it is to do great things."
Ada Louise Huxtable never shied away from controversy and over the years denounced big-name real-estate developers and land speculators for indiscriminately wiping out historical buildings that link a city to its past. On the other hand, she did not ascribe to preserving old buildings merely as museum pieces. "What preservation is all about," she wrote in 1968, "is the retention and active relationship of the building of the past to the community's functioning present." Huxtable was instrumental in the creation of a Landmarks Preservation Commission for New York City (1965) and also had a hand in saving architectural treasures in other American cities, including the Post Office in St. Louis, the First National Bank of Oregon in Portland, and the Windsor House in Windsor, Vermont.
As a crusader for excellence in the architecture of her own time, Huxtable was critical of some of Manhattan's contemporary offerings, including the New York Hilton Hotel and the
General Motors Building. Some of her more stinging comments were leveled at the Pan Am Building, which she referred to as a "a prime example of a New York specialty: the big, the expedient and the deathlessly ordinary." Huxtable called Washington, D.C.'s Rayburn Building a "national disaster," and her disdain extended to the General Services Administration, which oversees all federal construction in the United States. "It is quite possible that this is the worst building for the most money in the history of construction art," she wrote in March 1965. "It stuns by sheer mass and boring bulk." On the other hand, Huxtable praised the aesthetic values of the Seagram Building (perhaps her favorite), Chase Manhattan Plaza, and the Ford Foundation Building. A staunch defender of the "glass box," she also believes that the skyscraper "is one of the great technological and architectural achievements of our civilization."
Although Huxtable's opinions have come under frequent attack, few find fault with her trenchant, witty, and lively prose style. Barbara Belford , in Brilliant Bylines, points out that through the use of stylistic devices, Huxtable gently coaxes the casual reader into a critical experience. By way of example she cites the opening to a column on New York's CBS building (March 13, 1966):
The first observation that one must make about the new CBS headquarters that rises somberly from its sunken plaza at South Avenue and 52nd Street is that it is a building. It is not, like so much of today's large-scale construction, a handy commercial package, a shiny wraparound envelope, a packing case, a box of cards, a trick with mirrors.
It does not look like a cigar lighter, a vending machine, a nutmeg grater. It is a building in the true, classic sense: a complete design in which technology, function and esthetics are conceived and executed integrally for its purpose. As its architect, Eero Saarinen, wanted, this is a building to be looked at above the bottom fifty feet, to be comprehended as a whole.
Torre also points out that Huxtable's pithy descriptions tend to stick, noting that "The Hirshhorn museum in Washington, will forever be the 'biggest marble donut in the world.'"
In 1970, Huxtable received the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, and through the years she has been given countless other awards, including over 25 honorary degrees. She left The New York Times in 1981, after receiving a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," which provided a tax-free stipend of $300,000 over five years. Since then, she has produced a book, The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style (1985), and a third anthology of her Times columns, Architecture Anyone? (1985). Earlier collections include Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard? (1970), and Kicked a Building Lately? (1976).
Huxtable has been married since 1940 to industrial designer L. Garth Huxtable, whom she met on her first job at Bloomingdale's and with whom she often collaborates. He has taken photographs for her articles, and they designed tableware together for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. They divide their time between a penthouse apartment in New York and a summer home in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Garth once remarked that his wife's writing style conjures up the image of a large, bony woman in tweeds, although, to the contrary, she is a petite woman (5′2″), who is almost fragile-looking in appearance. Stephen Grover, in an article for the Wall Street Journal (November 7, 1972), quoted an architect who had observed her on a building site: "Before you know it, she's got 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."
Belford, Barbara. Brilliant Bylines. NY: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1973. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1973.
Torre, Susan, ed. Women in American Architecture. NY: Whitney Library of Design, 1977.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts