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Viewpoints: Michael Sorkin

Michael Sorkin

The legendary doyenne of American architectural criticism

Ada Louise Huxtable died early this year aged 91. She was the first full-time architectural critic at an American daily paper, The New York Times, setting the pattern and tone for a small legion of successors, and was central to establishing the relevance of architecture in the American mass media. Her writing was succinct and elegant, well-attuned to the journalistic short form, and it truly embodied the style of the times, not to mention The Times.

In a fine piece of genre-bending media inter-textuality, Huxtable is a key period reference in Mad Men, the popular TV show about Madison Avenue in the ’60s. This was the era in which Huxtable’s sensibility found shape and the acuity of the look and affect of the show cannily embodies the core context, if not the values, of her taste and purpose. The sight of those advertising executives working to encompass their corrupt creativity along with the lifestyle and political changes of the era - feminism, civil rights, Vietnam, sex, drugs, rock and roll - as it devolves on the waxing and waning of lapels, the downward progress of sideburns, reefer in the office, and the whole mid-century look put me in mind of Ada Louise, for her having been the antithesis of such faddishness.

While Huxtable’s work cannot be described as counter-cultural and she had little to write about the implications for architecture of the planetary events that roiled the times, she did have a strong moral centre and her eye was good, if narrowly focused. She was conscious that society was moving around her and found her vocation in trying to supply an anchor in the consensus of a great tradition, the stability of quality. Her prose was economical, cadenced and laced with apt zingers and she set a high standard of commitment in the tenacity of her affection for High Modernist architecture (her tooth tended to crispy clean IM Pei, the better Bunshaft, the Modernist Philip), in her powerful sense of the importance of the historic layering of the city, and her contempt for the vapidities of mass consumption. She did not suffer fools and she understood much about the position of architecture at the nexus of money and an often malfeasant governance. She was less concerned with popular forms of participation and betrayed little interest in the indecorous visual extravagances and experiments of a planet in rebellion and youth culture pretty much passed her by. Nor was she particularly engaged with environmental issues.

Huxtable’s last collection, of 2008, is prefaced with an anecdote about a ‘distinguished French journalist’ who asks, ‘Just what polemical position do you write from, Madame?’ Treating this as a daft question reveals both Huxtable’s viewpoint and her limitations. Her own formation as an art historian in the last days of old-time Kunstwissenshaft left her inclined to see the critic’s role as an assessor of the seriousness - the correctness - of form. That she did not see this as a ‘polemical position’ speaks both to rapid shifts in theory and criticism (much of it part of a great French emanation) which did not attract Huxtable and to a conservatism in her understanding of the function of criticism at that present time.

Huxtable’s outlook - its purview descendingthrough her successors at The Times until a turning to greater social engagement by the most recent - involved an over-identification of architecture with architects. Looking back at her oeuvre, I was struck by its lack of real dialogue with that other great urban critic of the day: Jane Jacobs. In a sense, they’d complicitly divvied up the territory of critique, with Huxtable the guardian and connoisseur of form and Jacobs its effects. To be sure, Huxtable staunchly promoted a certain kind of community value, especially the dignity of the public realm and the visual character of the street: her special bane was bad institutional buildings, government pomposity, disorderly impositions on the spaces of collective memory.

It was as voice for what is now inadequately called ‘preservation’ that she was at her strongest. She loved Beaux-Arts architecture and was clarion for the protection of New York’s monuments, from Penn Station to Grand Central to the Customs House. Just a month before she died, she published an incisive critique on behalf of New York’s great public library, a masterpiece by Carrère and Hastings about to be trashed by its nominal custodians to install a limp Norman Foster design for a circulating library in the space now occupied by its remarkable, structural, cage of stacks. The critic at her best: impassioned, learned, acute, rising powerfully in defence of an architecture of real value and real values.

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