Goodbye Ada Louise

January 8, 2013

Ada Louise Huxtable, 1974, photographed for Life by Alfred Eisenstaedt. (Photo poached from the Dwell website.)

I was sad to read in this morning’s New York Times that the newspaper’s first — and best — architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable,  has died at age 91.

My favorite article of hers, “The Park Avenue School of Architecture,”  was published in the Sunday Times Magazine on December 15, 1957.  She wasn’t yet on staff,  but was working at the Museum of Modern Art and writing an invaluable little book, Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City, jointly published in 1961 by MoMA and the Municipal Art Society.

In the article, she explains to a dubious public the value of the glassy new office towers that had recently  sprouted along Park Avenue, like Lever House and the Seagram Building.  She was writing when those buildings were still viewed as experiments or as outrages.   I like to have my SVA design criticism students read the article and then follow Huxtable’s walking tour of Park Avenue.  The goal is to get them to see the blocks between 42nd and 59th Streets, through her eyes,  as if it were 1961 and glass curtain-walled office buildings were  still controversial.  The idea is to get them to see a stretch that now seems entirely predictable as it was when it was  borderline unthinkable.

In 1957, Huxtable wrote:

“For we no longer just bury the past; we destroy it to make room for the future.  Monuments and memories are demolished with the same cheerful, irreverent violence.  As the old buildings disappear radical new ones rise immediately in their place and the pattern of progress becomes clear: business palaces replace private palaces; soap aristocracy supplants social aristocracy; sleek towers of steel-framed blue, green, or gray tinted glass give the avenue a glamorous and glittering new look.”

Well, social aristocracy has made a comeback since she wrote those words with landmark office towers transformed into luxury condos, but Huxtable’s lucid approach to architecture criticism never changed and she  never stopped writing. In recent years, she’s been the architecture critic of the Wall Street Journal. Check out what she had to say about Libeskind’s winning plan for Ground Zero or her recent take on the New York Public Library’s planned overhaul.

Oh, and you can get the 1957 Park Avenue article from the Times website (as a PDF).  Dig it out of the archives and go for a walk.  Honor the memory of Ada Louise Huxtable by spending a few hours seeing a familiar part of the city through her wonderfully fresh eyes.