Ada Louise Huxtable

A female architecture critic who advanced the discipline

Suzanne Stephens

Although Ada Louise Huxtable died almost a decade ago in 2013 at age 92, no one has taken her place as a preeminent architecture critic in the U.S. in the last 60 years. There are reasons for this omission, due to economic and technological conditions confronting media today. Nevertheless, as a female speaking her mind in a male-dominated profession, Huxtable was an important role model. Her forceful, well-reasoned arguments, a strong conscience, and a clear point of view, were delivered with precise, elegant prose and witty, epigrammatic phrasing.

Huxtable was not the first female architecture critic to appear in U.S. publications. In the late 19th century, Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer (1851-1934), author of the first biography of an American architect, Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works (1888), wrote architectural essays frequently for American Architect and Building News, the Century, and Lippincott’s among other periodicals. During the mid-20th century, other women such as Jane Jacobs, Catherine Bauer, and Sybil Moholy-Nagy wrote books, magazine essays, and newspaper columns advocating planning and housing policies and in Moholy-Nagy’s case, criticizing architecture. But they were activists or teachers as well as critics. Huxtable on the other hand, relied solely on the power of the printed word.

In 1963, when the New York Times appointed Huxtable as its first fulltime architecture critic, she quickly developed a following with the general public, professional architects, as well as potential clients, and government officials. Even though the San Francisco Chronicle had already hired Allan Temko as its architecture critic in 1961, and the New Yorker magazine had Lewis Mumford as its critic from 1931 to 1963, other periodicals had been lax. Soon Huxtable’s growing popularity spurred newspapers nationwide as well as general audience magazines to follow suit.

A Manhattan resident her whole life, Ada Louise Huxtable (neé Landman) graduated in 1941 from Hunter College in New York, and married industrial designer Garth Huxtable a year later. She entered the Institute of Fine Arts (part of New York University) to obtain advanced degrees in architecture history, but she left before completing her program. From 1946 to 1950 Huxtable was an assistant curator for the architecture and design department at the Museum of Modern Art. Then in 1950 she obtained a Fulbright fellowship to study architecture and design in Italy. Later when she returned to New York, she wrote freelance articles for magazines such as Progressive Architecture, won a Guggenheim fellowship in 1958, and completed a book on the Italian architect and engineer Pier Luigi Nervi in 1960. In 1957 she began writing freelance for the New York Times, and had published over 60 essays on architecture for the newspaper by the time she officially became its architecture critic. More honors were coming: In 1970 Huxtable was awarded the first Pulitzer prize given for distinguished criticism —any kind of criticism, including the other arts—and in 1973, she was elevated to the editorial board of the Times, (rare for a woman) while still writing on architecture for the newspaper. In 1981 came another prestigious honor— the MacArthur Foundation fellowship (known as the «genius grant»). She left the Times in 1982 to devote her time to writing books and essays for periodicals. Meanwhile the «firsts» were still coming her way: she was the first woman named to the jury of the well-known Pritzker Architecture Prize, where she served from 1987 to 2005. Eventually in 1997, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), which had no architecture critic, took her on. She stayed there until 2012.

Huxtable’s evaluation of architecture combined aesthetic, functional, urbanistic, and symbolic criteria, placed within a framework of environmental, economic, and social considerations. Hers was a typically American pragmatic approach. She did not want to engage in theoretical arguments or aesthetic analysis, as she explained early in her career. She believed in dissecting the processes that created the built environment in order to generate an understanding of them and influence action. Unplanned side effects may occur when the architect’s idea or design intention is realized, she argued. As new truths emerge, they need to be addressed, so that improved architectural solutions could emerge.

Huxtable’s advocacy of preservation was as important to her approach as was her commitment to contemporary architecture: When Pennsylvania Station, designed by McKim, Mead & White (1909), was torn down in 1963, she decried its destruction in the New York Times. In the future she would not wait for the building to be demolished before writing about it. The U. S. General Service Administration, which owned the U.S. Custom House in New York, attributed the saving of this historic building, designed by Cass Gilbert in 1907, to an article Huxtable wrote in the Times in 1973. The essay helped the building in 1975 to become part of a program transferring surplus federal buildings to cities for income-producing purposes. Today it functions as the National Museum of the American Indian.

Huxtable’s predisposition to preservation did not mean she would always promote a preservation cause just for the sake of it. For example, in 2008 she did not advocate saving 2 Columbus Circle which had been designed by Edward Durell Stone as the Gallery of Modern Art. When it opened in 1964, Huxtable wrote «The new museum resembles a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollypops.» The description stuck. After the museum closed down and was turned over to other ownerships, the Museum of Art and Design (MAD), formerly known as the American Craft Museum, decided to buy it from the city. MAD selected Allied Works Architecture, headed by Brad Cloepfil, to undertake its reworking. Advocates for keeping the Stone building were many, including author Tom Wolfe, architect Robert A.M. Stern, and critic Herbert Muschamp, as well as preservation groups. But Ada Louise Huxtable was not part of this cohort. She defended Cloepfil’s scheme, particularly its redesign of the interior spaces, and was pleased that Stone’s «exotic kitsch» façade would be replaced by Cloepfil’s. She lauded the «restrained expressive reflection of an unusual way of using the concrete frame to open the building visually, inside and out.»

Nevertheless, Huxtable could be critical of modernist exercises as well. In 1983 in the New York Review of Books, she castigated the «Transformations in Modern Architecture» exhibition organized by MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design in 1979. She maintained: «Never have so many bad buildings been given so prestigious a showcase—and dealt a body blow to modern architecture by showing how far it had strayed from its original premises.»

Huxtable had an astute prescience about proposed projects, which could be seen in the critique of the Hudson Yards development she wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2008. In reviewing the handful of developer-architect teams vying for the site over railyards on the West Side between 30th and 33rd streets, she noted that Related Companies was a rumored to be a «front runner» owing to its «Machiavellian deal-making». She concluded the scheme was «perfectly awful». She was right about Related getting the job: and today about half of its scheme has been built. Its towers, mostly designed by KPF Architects, are angled in different directions. Along with a much-criticized centerpiece— the «Vessel» by Thomas Heatherwick — the agglomeration has helped Huxtable posthumously prove her point.

While Huxtable wrote less frequently for the WSJ, than for the Times, the former pieces still reached a readership with a financial and political influence. At the end of her life, Huxtable arguably wrote her most influential essay for the WSJ in December 2012. She was upset about Norman Foster’s plan to gut the seven floors of stacks of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street, designed by Carrère and Hastings in 1911. Foster proposed inserting an airport-like atrium in the Beaux-Arts building. Huxtable warned the library «is about to undertake its own destruction… This a plan devised out of a profound ignorance or 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.» Huxtable’s critique of the proposed scheme generated a heated preservation battle and led to rethinking of the plan. Foster is no longer the architect for this undertaking. Architects Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder Belle were put in charge of the new master plan in 2017, which is currently in the works.

We still need Ada Louise Huxtable. Today the architecture critics have lost many outlets. True, the New York Times has Michael Kimmelman, the Philadelphia Inquirer has Inga Saffron, and the New York Review of Books has Martin Filler, whose pointed prose attracts a devoted readership. But newspapers, magazines, and professional journals are shutting down or not encouraging this kind of criticism. It is true that new blogs and other digital media dominate communication and often showcase women architecture critics, such as Alexandra Lange, Mimi Zeiger, and Frances Anderton. But whether it is the nature of the medium or actual characteristics of their writing, they do not seem to have the clout today that Ada Louise Huxtable had. She is much missed.

Suzanne Stephens, until recently deputy editor of Architectural Record, is currently working on a book on the history of American architectural criticism. She obtained her Ph.D. in architectural history and urbanism from Cornell University, and teaches a seminar in architectural criticism at Barnard College.