“There are some fine architecture critics, don’t get me wrong,” Philip Lopate once wrote in Metropolis, the architecture and design journal. “Huxtable is simply our best.”
Indeed, Ada Louise Huxtable, who died on Jan. 7 at age 91 in New York City, was a trailblazer among American architecture critics. When the New York Times appointed her as its first-ever architecture critic in 1963, she became the first American newspaper writer ever to have buildings as her beat. In 1970, when she won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize awarded for criticism, judges noted that she brought a “sharp, analytic eye” to her essays on buildings.
She sometimes had a sharp tongue as well. When she derided architect Edward Durell Stone’s 1964 12-story modernist tower at 2 Columbus Circle as “a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops,” it seemed so apt that the building became known as the “lollipop building.” That nickname “may prove to be my only claim to immortality,” she later wrote. (Indeed, it lasted longer than the structure’s ugly facade, which was radically overhauled a few years ago.)
She likened another of Stone’s projects, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, to the designs of Nazi architect Albert Speer. Huxtable wrote with only slightly less vitriol about the bland designs of contemporary museums, complaining that they were chosen by “museum boards unwilling to invest in anything less than an iconic look-alike by a tiresomely familiar name.” Even some of her books had sarcastic titles, such as Kicked a Building Lately? in 1976 and Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger: An Anthology of Architectural Delights and Disasters in 1986.
But Huxtable wasn’t just a Dorothy Parker who wrote about buildings. She lauded numerous buildings as well. Her favorites ranged from New York’s Lever House and the CBS Building (aka “Black Rock”), to Houston’s Pennzoil Place, the Phillip Johnson-John Burgee collaboration whose exotic trapezoidal towers made it “a dramatic and beautiful and important building,” as she wrote in 1976.
And while she was a modernist at heart and far from nostalgic, Huxtable also was among the first critics to champion historic preservation. As Lopate put it in his Metropolis essay, “Huxtable simply saw no reason to tear down a handsome old building that supplied invaluable texture and memory for a mediocre, ugly, overscale one.” One of her first books, Classic New York: Georgian Gentility to Greek Elegance, was a homage to the city’s venerable treasures.
Here’s an interview that PBS journalist Charlie Rose did with Huxtable a few years back.