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Ada Louise Huxtable memorial explores architecture critic's legacy

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NEW YORK -- On Tuesday afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum in New York the architecture world, or what felt like a pretty substantial cross-section of it, gathered to remember the pioneering New York Times and Wall Street Journal architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who died in January at age 91.

I was among the half-dozen speakers, who also included architect Frank Gehry, Getty Trust President and Chief Executive James Cuno and critic Paul Goldberger.

Garrison Keillor sent taped remarks and the program ended with a series of clips from Huxtable's appearances over the years on "The Charlie Rose Show." The audience included architects Richard Meier, Robert A. M. Stern, Elizabeth Diller and Tod Williams, among many others.

"Her writing was a very apt portrait of her," Gehry said. "It had strength, charisma, intelligence, passion."

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When they served together as jurors for the Pritzker Prize and in other conversations, Gehry added, he and Huxtable disagreed on a regular basis. "But I took something, always, from the discussion."

These are the remarks I prepared for the memorial:

Like many others on the program today, I’m here to talk about Ada Louise Huxtable's singular career and the fierce authority of her work. But I’m also here to do something slightly different. I'm here to speak about the Ada Louise Huxtable of the future -- about what she has meant and will continue to mean to me and the other architecture critics of my generation, and what it means that her archive now has a home clear on the other side of the country, at the Getty in Los Angeles.

Before I do that let me briefly make one separate comment. You've probably noticed that the speakers today have one thing in common: we are all male. I wonder what Ada Louise would have made of that. By a strict definition, at least, she was not a feminist. But I do want to acknowledge the female architecture critics and editors, to say nothing of the female architects, who are doing strong and important work today. Those critics and editors, heirs of Ada Louise as I am, include Cathleen McGuigan, Inga Saffron, Karrie Jacobs, Julie Iovine and Alexandra Lange, among many others. Many of them are here today.

For my part, I didn’t meet Ada Louise in person until seven years ago, in February of 2006, when she was in her 80s and well into what turned out to be a 15-year stint as the architecture critic at the Wall Street Journal, following of course nearly 20 years at the New York Times and as many as an independent critic and scholar. We met at the preview of a Museum of Modern Art exhibition on new architecture in Spain. Boom-time Spain. Post-Franco, pre-austerity Spain.

It may have been Terry Riley, who curated that show, who handled the introduction. Ada Louise was shorter than some of the architectural models on their podiums by several inches, and yet there was a kind of force field of energy she carried through the new starched and bleached Yoshio Taniguchi galleries, trailed by looks and whispers of recognition.

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I remember feeling tall and ungainly, unseasoned, in her compact and serious presence. She became a semi-regular email correspondent, and her comments on my writing continued to mean more than those of anyone else. But many others here -- among my colleagues at the podium today, and among the audience -- can speak more eloquently about Ada Louise the person and Ada Louise the New Yorker.

Influence, collegiality, reputation, professional and personal kinship: These are tricky issues among the competing members of any profession. Sometimes it takes an age gap, a generational remove, to smooth the way. For me and for many architecture critics around my age -- and I want to give special mention to Mark Lamster, newly installed as the architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, though he is as much a New Yorker as Ada Louise, and Alexandra Lange, whom I've already named -- for us, now mostly in our early 40s, the personal example Ada Louise set, or the support she gave, was generous, straightforward, in certain ways remarkably free of psychological complication.

A bigger influence for us has simply been the path she laid down, the work itself.

It has become common, even fashionable, to use Ada Louise’s name as a shorthand for criticism that is tough, savvy, politically minded, concerned with real-estate power plays and the life of the street and the city, rather than with the formal achievements or failures of individual buildings by well-known architects. And of course her writing did confront, head-on, those topics and those themes.

But what has struck me time and again in going back to her criticism, more than that toughness or fearlessness, is its breadth and variety -- and in fact how often she did write about single buildings, either reviewing them once they were complete or assessing proposed designs years away from opening. And how often she wrote about aesthetics or engineering, or carefully dissected the body of work of one architect or firm.

Architecture criticism has shifted dramatically in the last few years toward a focus on urbanism and planning and the public's role in shaping cities. I applaud the shift in general. I hope that I have been one of the critics to help bring it about. But we are in danger, I think, of letting the pendulum swing too far. Speaking simply as a reader, I miss strong, eloquent reviews of individual buildings, especially those reviews that see buildings as vessels carrying larger aesthetic, social or political meaning. Luckily Ada Louise’s archive is full of pieces like that.

In 1973, for example, when she was arguably at the very height of her powers, 10 years into her tenure at the New York Times, three years removed from her Pulitzer Prize, her output included pieces on zoning and preservation and evolving plans for Battery Park City, what she called "this totally new piece of Manhattan."

She reviewed a show on housing at MOMA, covered a planning controversy at Picadilly Circus in London and in several pieces grappled with the meaning of the nascent environmental movement. She assessed Louis Kahn's design for a planned FDR memorial on what was then called Welfare Island; in a foreshadowing of the current debate over the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, she wrote that by objecting to earlier plans the Roosevelt family had revealed its taste for the “cautiously traditional."

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She offered a tart critique that year of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's recent -- and in her view highly uneven -- work.

"Something has gone wrong at SOM," she wrote, "and saying so is a little like attacking the Pope."

But she also reviewed  a reconstruction of the 1871 Ladies Pavilion in Central Park; the new wing of the Boston Public Library, by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, and Minoru Yamasaki's new World Trade Center towers.

She wrote about the imminent restoration of Cooper Union’s 114-year-old Foundation building, and the rolled-iron beams that made the building a structural marvel when it opened.

“That was no lady in hoopskirts at the corner of Third Avenue and 8th Street,” she wrote. “It was a building in which progress became history, and style became art, and it is finally getting its due.”

And she analyzed John Portman's proposal, championed by Mayor John Lindsay, for a new 54-story hotel tower in Times Square, calling it “a design peculiarly appropriate” to its site.
 
Seen from a contemporary point of view, 1973 stands for more than a few architectural historians as something of a dead zone, transitional at best. Seen through Ada Louise's eyes it was something else entirely -- a year of intrigue and meaning and architectural forward motion, a year of vivid importance to the life and future of New York City.
 
And that was just one year out of the more than 50 she spent writing about architecture -- a thin slice of a remarkably rich archive that we ought to remember was as much about design and architecture as it was about planning or power.
 
And now that archive is at the Getty Research Institute, dozens of boxes being arranged, even as we speak, deep in the recesses of a hilltop campus. I have spent a bit of time already in the archive, getting a sense of what it covers, and I look forward to many, many more hours there.

I know that some New Yorkers are distressed that her papers are not in the city or close by.  I can understand that feeling. But her influence, already so strong and meaningful for so many people in New York and in this room, is now poised to spread dramatically, over space as well as time, as her work and legacy attract new readers and scholars and essentially gain a second base of operations on the West Coast.

Maybe this is one advantage, finally, that we architecture critics have over the buildings we write about: that we and our work are mobile, that our influence can radiate out into the world from many places at once.

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