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Ada Louise Huxtable dies at 91; renowned architecture critic

Ada Louise Huxtable's fiery criticism helped shape New York City in the 1960s and '70s. The Pulitzer Prize winner addressed not just the aesthetics but the politics of architecture.

January 08, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times
  • From her earliest days at the New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable displayed a talent for writing about both the aesthetics and politics of architecture, a subject she described as “this uneasy, difficult combination of structure and art.”
From her earliest days at the New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable displayed… (Dorothy Alexander )

Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic who in two decades of writing for the New York Times became a powerful force in shaping New York City and was better known than many of the architects she was covering and certainly more feared, has died. She was 91.

Huxtable, who in 1970 won the first Pulitzer Prize awarded for criticism, died Monday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said her lawyer, Robert N. Shapiro.

The Getty Center announced Monday that it had acquired her papers, along with those of her husband, industrial designer L. Garth Huxtable, who died in 1989. The deal – something of a surprise given the critic's close association with New York and the East Coast -- was finalized in December; the archive will be held at the Getty Research Institute. Huxtable also donated the entirety of her estate to the Getty.

Wim de Wit, head of the department of architecture and contemporary art at the Getty Research Institute, said Huxtable's papers were historically significant in part because "she spoke powerfully as a woman in this world of men, the architecture world of the 1960s and '70s."

Huxtable was writing with her familiar fire and verve into her final years. As the architecture critic for the Wall Street Journal, a post she took up in 1997, she frequently blasted the political compromises shaping rebuilding at the World Trade Center site.

Early last month the Journal published her review of plans to restructure the main branch of the New York Public Library.

The library, in working with the British architect Norman Foster, "is about to undertake its own destruction," Huxtable wrote. "This is a plan devised out of a profound ignorance of a willful disregard for not only the library's original concept and design, but also the folly of altering its meaning and mission and compromising its historical and architectural integrity."

Ada Louise Landman was born March 14, 1921, in New York City. Her father, Michael, was a doctor. After earning a degree in art and architectural history from Hunter College and marrying in 1942, she pursued graduate work at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts before taking a job in the Museum of Modern Art's architecture and design department.

A Fulbright fellowship took her to Italy in the early 1950s, and when she returned to New York she turned her research on the Italian architect and engineer Pier Luigi Nervi into her first book, published in 1960.

She was by then writing for a number of magazines and had begun work on what she imagined would be a six-part history of New York City architecture. While wrapping up the first volume she was recruited by the New York Times. Aline Louchheim had been writing about both architecture and art for the paper, but after she married architect Eero Saarinen, her editors decided it would be a conflict of interest to allow her to continue covering architecture.

"I went in all dressed up, with my clippings," Huxtable told WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate in 2008. "And I remember saying, 'All you've been doing is printing the developers' P.R. releases in your real estate section. You have nobody covering this very important field.'"

Huxtable was not the first architecture critic at an American daily – Allan Temko joined the San Francisco Chronicle in 1961, and long before that Montgomery Schuyler was writing for the New York Tribune – but she quickly established herself as an authoritative voice and a champion for historic preservation. More than a few real-estate developers, she told the Christian Science Monitor, "would be glad to have my head on a platter."

She reserved her most energetic scorn for those architects she saw as declawing or prettying up modern architecture. Edward Durell Stone came in for two of Huxtable's most infamous zingers. After she called his museum on Columbus Circle "a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops," it became forever known as "the lollipop building."

She was even more dismissive of Stone's gilded Kennedy Center complex in Washington, D.C., describing it in 1971 as "a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried."

But Huxtable will be remembered for more than barbed prose. From her earliest days at the New York Times, she displayed a talent for writing about both the aesthetics and politics of architecture, a subject she described as "this uneasy, difficult combination of structure and art."

Today there is a seeming divide among architecture critics, with some sticking to the traditional duties of reviewing new buildings by prominent architects while others make a point of writing about everything but buildings: parks, urban planning or the fate of the planet. Huxtable showed that this gulf was easily crossed, writing at length at about a single architect's body of work one week and about preservation, politics or zoning the next.

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