Born in 1921 and brought up in Manhattan in a middle class family on the Upper West side, Ada Louise Huxtable experienced a New York that was of a very different character from that which emerged, piece by piece, in the decade that followed the end of the New Deal in the mid-50’s. As a child and teenager she was deeply affected by the Beaux Arts institutions of the city, the National History and Metropolitan Museums and the New York Public Library in particular, not only by virtue of their cultural content but also by their precisely crafted and well-proportioned civic tenor, which, along with the earliest Art Deco skyscrapers, constituted her formative impressions of the city during her teens.
Attracted like many other cultivated and urbane New Yorkers by the ameliorative promise of the Modern Movement to which Frank Lloyd Wright had made a formative contribution at the beginning of the century, Ada Louise elected to study art history at New York University before joining the staff of the Museum of Modern Art as a curatorial assistant. At that time she seemed to have believed unequivocally in the promise of modernism, as we may judge from the enthusiasm with which she assisted Philip Johnson in the mounting of the first MoMA retrospective exhibition on the work of Mies van der Rohe in 1963. She was by now in her early 40’s and it was surely this exhibition that brought her to the attention of the New York Times where she would serve as its architectural critic from 1963 to 1982, writing virtually every week to become one of the longest running architectural critics who was writing regularly in a major national newspaper with the single exception perhaps of Bruno Zevi’s column in L’Espresso. Such service earned her the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1970 and a seat on the editorial board of the New York Times from 1973 to 1981.
She was in many respects the most singularly detached, accessible, yet passionately caring critic of her generation. Painstakingly well-informed and rigorously perceptive, she wrote of the on-going built environment without ever indulging in gratuitous ad hominems attacks or falling into the all-too-common fatal flaws of provincialism and pretension. She applied much of her critical intellect to castigating the somnambulant piecemeal destruction of Manhattan through a combination of bureaucratic corruption and ruthless speculation, aided and abetted by the fatal combination of venal developers and mediocre architects.
Now on the occasion of her passing on January 7th 2013, one is left with the uncomfortable feeling that she was never sufficiently recognized by the architects and architectural critics of my generation. Throughout my career she was most generous to me in every respect and now when, all too belatedly, one looks back over the total body of her production, one comes to realize what a magnum opus it is. Her writing surely stands out today as an ethical and political legacy, testifying to another more democratic America, which now seems to be devolving both economically and otherwise as the United States enters upon the inevitability of its imperial decline.
Kenneth Frampton, Ware Professor of Architecture, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University.
Ada Louise Huxtable wrote an obituary to Louis Kahn, after his death in 1974, titled "The Meaning of a Wall." Read the obituary here.