REVIEW | BOOKS :: «ON ARCHITECTURE: COLLECTED REFLECTIONS ON A CENTURY OF CHANGE» by ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE

Ada Louise Huxtable in Midtown in the 1970s. Photo: Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images

Photo: John Goodman

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I admire this woman. As the first architecture critic at The New York Times, a post she held from 1963-1982, Ada Louise Huxtable (b. 14 March 1921 in New York) can be credited with bringing architectural awareness to the masses.

I was unaware of her book, On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change, until I saw her interviewed by Charlie Rose (see below).

Ada Louise Huxtable writes with clarity and conviction. In this book we have a compendium of her criticism spanning five decades.

The book’s title is a bit of a misnomer: there are no “reflections” on these essays (most of which were first published in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal); they are presented here exactly as they appeared in print with no post-facto editorializing. This is architectural criticism “as it happened.”

If there is a flaw in all of this, it is Huxtable’s fixation on her hometown, New York, to the virtual exclusion of the rest of the world (and its architects).

She is also, to my chagrin, enamoured of the “Two Franks” (Wright and Gehry). Philip Johnson (who appears in many of these essays) famously dismissed Lloyd Wright by saying he was “the greatest architect of the nineteenth century.” He had a point: FLW seems to be of an era other than the great Modernists of the 20th century. As for Gehry, he has produced amazingly complex architecture but has deviated so far from the Modernist dictum that “form follows function” that it might be better to classify him as a sculptor. Yet, we all have our heroes, and if Huxtable chooses the two Franks as hers, so be it.

FRANK I: FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT (8 JUNE 1867-9 APRIL 1959)

FRANK II: FRANK OWEN GEHRY (b. 28 FEBRUARY 1929)

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Buy (or borrow) this book. It will provide you with an easy, breezy summary of modern architecture, its practitioners, and the development of the modern city.

Huxtable set the pace regarding architectural criticism and this collection of her thoughts on the subject of Modern architecture is a keeper.

To whet your appetite, here are nine of my favourite Huxtable quotes from On Architecture:

GUGGENHEIM I: New York (1959) by Frank I

GUGGENHEIM II: Bilbao (1997) by Frank II

CHOICE QUOTE 1: “Frank I and Frank II”

Let it be said without fear or equivocation: The Frank Gehry retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York is — and I eliminate those customary fail-safe worlds arguably and probably — the most important and impressive architectural exhibition I have seen in a long career. And Frank Gehry is the most staggeringly talented architect that this country has produced [NB he was born in Toronto] since Frank Lloyd Wright.

If anyone expected the two of them to duke it out in Wright’s much-maligned rotunda (installation problems have driven some directors almost literally up its canted walls), they are in for a dramatic surprise. Frank I and Frank II have joined forces for the kind of visual, emotional, structural, and sensory experience that is at the heart of great architecture. You cannot stand in this space and fail to respond to the strength and beauty of the building and its contents, or not recognize that what Wright started, Mr. Gehry has continued, and that this is what architecture in the hands of genius, to use that cheapened but still essential description of those after whom the world is never the same. (p. 282)

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CHOICE QUOTE 2: “He chose to call the building an ‘archeseum’.”

Whether Wright’s unique idea [for the Guggenheim Museum, 1959] of channeling the visitors past the collection along an inexorable, winding ramp is worth these functional sacrifices is debatable. The fact that he chose to call the building an ‘archeseum’ is indication enough of his lifelong conviction that architecture is the ‘mother art’ beyond which little else concerned him. (p. 95)

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CHOICE QUOTE 3: “Lollypops”

Outside, the new museum [Huntington Hartford’s Gallery of Modern Art, 2 Columbus Circle, by Edward Durell Stone, 1964] resembles a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollypops. It begs for a canal or garden setting, rather than the dusty disorder of a New York traffic circle. (p. 354)

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CHOICE QUOTE 4: “You don’t get any luckier than that.”

My relationship with New York’s Museum of Modern Art began in the forties, in the intimacy of the original [Philip L.] Goodwin and [Edward Durell] Stone building. A student-friendly twenty-five-cent admission made it headquarters for young New Yorkers drawn to its exiting modernist message. It was the cool place to be. We dated beneath the undulating cheesehole canopy of the roof terrace restaurant, and my first job was in the Department of Architecture and Design, with Philip Johnson as boss and Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum’s founding director, as mentor; you don’t get any luckier than that. We preached truth, reason, the gospel of art of our time, and the rational beauty of everyday things. (p. 364)

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CHOICE QUOTE 5: “They had none.”

The [World] Trade Center towers were never beautiful buildings; they achieved landmark status only because of their size. There is nothing compelling about replacing them for their architectural distinction; they had none. The architect, Minoru Yamasaki, a Japanese American, was a talented and gentle man best known for introducing an innovative kind of concrete construction, who did better buildings elsewhere. (p. 378)

CHOICE QUOTE 6: “The poster project for the worst kind of urban renewal.”

The World Trade Center was the poster project for the worst kind of urban renewal imposed on American cities in the sixties and seventies — nothing changes that fact. (p. 390)

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News, 1938-40, by Isamu Noguchi. Stainless steel. Associated Press Building, Rockefeller Center, New York City.

CHOICE QUOTE 7: “We have lost the faith and the nerve.”

Rockefeller Center is not a model to be followed literally [when rebuilding Ground Zero] — every age has its own style and sensibility. Today’s aesthetic and technological resources are enormous; they can support a wide variety of solutions. I do not believe for a moment that we are no longer capable of building great cities of symbolic beauty and enduring public amenity. What Ground Zero tells us is that we have lost the faith and the nerve, the knowledge and the leadership, to make it happen now. (p. 401)

“Here [in New York] we practice the art of the deal, not the art of the city.”

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CHOICE QUOTE 8: “The war-delayed promise of a better and more beautiful world.”

Whatever happened to Danish Modern? Where has all the furniture gone that was such a tidal wave of good taste and good design in the fifties? Danish dominated every prestigious design exhibition and profitable furniture promotion; it was in all the best model rooms, as an important part of the Scandinavian design supremacy of the years just after the Second World War. Danish products were the cachet of the homes of the artistic and intellectual elite, the darlings of museums and markets everywhere. Handsome and utilitarian, they stressed simplicity, logic, and truth to life, structure and materials. Danish Modern was the war-delayed promise of a better and more beautiful world. (p. 435)

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Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room, 1978. Silver dye bleach transparency; aluminum frame, 159.1 x 234 cm. National Gallery of Canada.

CHOICE QUOTE 9: “Historically, clutter is a modern phenomenon.”

Historically, clutter is a modern phenomenon, born of the industrial revolution. There was time when goods were limited; and the rich and fashionable were few in number, and objects were precious and hard to come by. Clutter is a nineteenth-century aesthetic; it came with the abundance of manufactured products combined with the rise of purchasing power, and the shifts in society that required manifestations of status and style.

Our possessions possess us. (p. 441)

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ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE on CHARLIE ROSE

1997: Speaking about The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion

2009: Speaking about On Architecture

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further reading:

The New York Times: Her New York

MetropolisAda Louise Huxtable: History

The New York Observer: Ada Louise Huxtable

• designKULTUR: Habitat ’67 – Moshe Safdie’s Masterpiece

• designKULTUR: Wrestling with Moses – Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses

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On architecture : collected reflections on a century of change

Ada Louise Huxtable

New York: Walker, 2008

478 p.

ISBN: 9780802717078 : 0802717071

Contents:

The joy of architecture — The way we were: The ’60s; ’70s; ’80s; ’90s — The way we built: 20th century icons and images — Washington — Museums — Skyscrapers — Modernism and its masters: Le Corbusier — Mies Van Der Rohe — Alvar Aalto — Louis Kahn — Walter Gropius — Frank Lloyd Wright — Modernism and its discontents: Reinventing architecture — Rewriting history — New York: World Trade Center — Failures and follies — Taste and style — Strictly personal.

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