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Tribute to Ada Louise Huxtable

Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY
March 25th, 1996

My job at The New York Times for most of the past 24 years has been easy. It has been easy for one simple reason: that before me came Ada Louise Huxtable. Do not believe anyone who tells you that an extraordinary talent is difficult to follow. Ada Louise Huxtable is about as difficult to follow as a man with a lantern in a blackout: you have to follow her. She compels you to follow her. There is no other way except to follow her, since she is the one who has made the path, laid out the road, determined the direction, and set us all going.

The road I speak of is, of course, the pursuit of journalistic architectural criticism, in which Ada Louise truly showed the way, beginning in the early 1960’s with freelance articles in The New York Times, which led to her appointment as the newspaper’s first architecture critic in 1963, 33 years ago. But the trail she has blazed has been much broader than this. Before this strained metaphor collapses of its own weight, let me say just a little bit more about the remarkable road Ada Louise has spent her life opening up, for it is much wider and deeper than just our profession. Ada Louise Huxtable has been more than just the most important pioneer of architectural criticism in newspapers in our time: she has been the most important figure in communicating the urgency of some kind of belief in the values of the man-made environment in our time, too. She has made people pay attention. She has made people care. She has made architecture matter in our culture in a way that it did not before her time.

She did not do this alone, obviously. She had the backing of a great newspaper behind her, and editors who were mostly sympathetic to her cause — or, if not sympathetic, were so awed by her self-confidence, poise, eloquence and reputation that they did not dare stand in her way. And she had a rising tide of popular interest behind her: the growing historic preservation movement, the increased level of architectural and visual literacy in our culture, the increased willingness to believe that architecture might, in some way, affect the quality of life.

We must never forget that when Ada Louise began writing, these were bizarre ideas. Weird, irrelevant to anything that mattered. Historic preservation meant something like old ladies in tired house museums, the kind of places where they purred at you to sign the guest book and gave you nasty looks if you were wearing blue jeans. The notion that anything old could be something other the genteel, and could have some vital connection to the present, could teach us anything of real meaning, not to mention the notion that places of the George Washington Slept Here variety might not be the only old things worth preserving — these were not commonly held beliefs in the early 1960’s, when McKim’s great Pennsylvania Station crashed to the ground, and Ada Louise Huxtable’s cry was almost the only protest heard , a cry that remains that great building’s most lasting, eloquent eulogy.

Old buildings didn’t matter; new buildings looked like — well, an awful lot of them in those days looked just like the buildings that replaced Penn Station, which looked just like the buildings that destroyed Third Avenue, which looked just like the buildings that destroyed Sixth Avenue and so much else in so many great American downtowns. The only architect most people had ever heard of in those years was Frank Lloyd Wright, and all most people could have told you about him was that he had designed a round museum where pictures looked funny. None of this had much to do with anything serious, like politics or the economy. It didn’t even have much to do with culture, which was mainly music and theater and art. Architecture was no more a part of cultural discourse than it was a part of political discourse. I think we all have a tendency to forget how much in the 1950’s and 1960’s architecture was seen as peripheral to everything that mattered.

Enter Ada Louise, who does not accept being peripheral to anything. I could cite a thousand of her individual accomplishments — buildings saved from the wrecker’s ball, new buildings better designed than they would otherwise have been, cities planned more sensibly, zoning laws written more reasonably — but in the end they would all add up to bringing architecture out of the periphery and thrusting it, absolutely and irrevocably, into the mainstream of our culture. This is her great achievement. Before Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture was not a part of the public dialogue. Today it is, in New York and all around the United States, and she is overwhelmingly responsible for this.

And that, of course, is why I say my job is easy, not hard, as a result of her presence. By the time I was lucky enough to share the platform of The Times, the public was crying out for more opportunities to think about architecture, for more opportunities to become involved in the whole process of evaluating the built environment. It was demanding a say in the process of planning and design. It was no longer willing to take lying down whatever tenth-rate trash the city’s developers and planners wanted to throw it. Not that the city’s developers and planners didn’t try throwing it anyway, of course — but the public was more and more alert to it, and more and more skeptical, thanks to Ada Louise. As a result of her writing, the public was beginning to assert itself as a force — to become an educated constituency for architecture, in the same way that it had long before become an educated constituency in politics.

Somehow it seems wrong for this evening to consist entirely of our words, and not Ada Louise’s. I had a wonderful time over this weekend looking back at a lot of her writing, and realized I would probably have been wiser spending five minutes simply quoting her. The lines are as good as ever, decades later. So let me end with something wonderful she said about New York, the city that has always been, in truth, her real subject. Whatever she has said, from the warmest comments to the harshest, Ada Louise Huxtable’s love of New York, and her desperate desire to make it better, have never been in doubt. “When it is good, New York is very, very good,” she wrote in 1968. “Which is why New Yorkers put up with so much that is bad. When it is good, this is a city of fantastic strength, sophistication and beauty,” she has written. “It is like no other city in time or place…..[that fills us with] awe in the presence of massed, concentrated steel, stone, power and life.”

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