Writer who pioneered modern architecture criticism and won Pulitzer Prize
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: Ada Louise Huxtable, who died last Monday aged 91, pioneered modern architectural criticism in the pages of the New York Times, celebrating buildings that respected human dignity and civic history – and memorably scalding those that did not.
Beginning in 1963, as the first full-time architecture critic at a US newspaper, she opened the priestly precincts of design and planning to everyday readers. For that, she won the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, in 1970.
More recently, she was the architecture critic of the Wall Street Journal. “Mrs Huxtable invented a new profession,” a valedictory Times editorial said in 1981, just as she was leaving the newspaper, “and, quite simply, changed the way most of us see and think about man-made environments.”
At a time when architects were still in thrall to blank-slate urban renewal, Huxtable championed preservation. She was appalled at how profit dictated planning and led developers to squeeze the most floor area on to the least amount of land with the fewest public amenities.
She had no use for banality, monotony, artifice or ostentation, for private greed or governmental ineptitude. She could be eloquent or impertinent, even sarcastic. Gracefully poised in person, she did not shy in print from comparing the worst of contemporary American architecture to the totalitarian excesses of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
Ada Louise Landman was born on March 14th, 1921, to Leah Rosenthal Landman and Dr Michael Louis Landman. She grew up in Manhattan in a Beaux-Arts apartment house, and wandered enthralled through Grand Central terminal, the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum.
She attracted notice in the New York Times at an early age with her stage-set designs for Hunter College productions of The Yellow Jacket in 1940 and HMS Pinafore in 1941. After graduating from Hunter in 1941, she attended New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. But her most treasured academic home was probably the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia University.
After university, she was hired by Bloomingdale’s to sell a furniture line with works by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. “Many young architects and designers made the obligatory tour of the rooms,” she recalled. “One of them noticed and married me.”
That was L Garth Huxtable, an industrial designer. He took many of the photographs for his wife’s books. The couple also collaborated in designing tableware for the Four Seasons restaurant, which opened in 1959 in the Seagram Building.
She was assistant curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art from 1946 to 1950. She was a Fulbright fellow from 1950 to 1952 and a Guggenheim fellow in 1958, and had also begun writing for architectural journals.
In 1958 Huxtable addressed a broader audience in the New York Times Magazine with an article criticising how newspapers covered urban development. Five years later she was invited to become a critic by Clifton Daniel, then assistant managing editor of the New York Times.
“At first she turned him down, saying daily journalism would disrupt her private life,” Nan Robertson wrote in The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men and the New York Times.
“Daniel looked elsewhere, assiduously, but in his own words, ‘I couldn’t find anyone better than she was’.”
Huxtable said the New York Times made a “brave gamble” in the “belief that the quality of the built world mattered, at a time when environment was still only a dictionary word”.
‘New York Times’ board
In 1973 she was the second woman named to the New York Times editorial board. She left the newspaper when she was appointed a MacArthur fellow in 1981.
Huxtable was the author of 11 books. Her last column, published in the Wall Street Journal on December 3rd, 2012, concerned the impending reconstruction of the New York Public Library. Typically enough, it was titled, “Undertaking its Destruction”.
Garth Huxtable died in 1989. Ada Huxtable left no immediate survivors.