Ada Louise Huxtable in 1976.
To the endless cultural tug-of-war between New York and Los Angeles, add now the competitive claims on the soul of Ada Louise Huxtable, the doyenne of architectural letters who died this January. In a genteel ceremony (with piano accompaniment) held this Tuesday at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the auspices of the J. Paul Getty Trust, representatives of each city claimed her mantel in a revealing memorial that pried Ada Louise from her native New York to give her to the nation via Los Angeles.
Robert Shapiro, board president of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.—where Ada Louise summered in a beloved ranch house and championed historic preservation against urban development by freeway—opened the event in an auditorium full of the East Coast architecture establishment, a group whose opinions she did so much to shape over at least two generations. Shapiro said, "She didn't want a memorial but she didn't say anything about a memorial tribute." The indomitable Ms. Huxtable was, for once, in no position to have the last word.
"I have heard the expression 'lean in' a lot lately. Ada Louise was leaning in, and a lot, and in her own way, with her own style, inducing us all to follow in her footsteps. I can't think of a better role model for women, or for any of us, for that matter. She may have been demure in stature, but she was a great talent." —Frank Gehry, FAIA
In a droll sound clip, with his ironic edge clearly sanded off by affection, fellow American Acadamician Garrison Keillor remembered that Ada Louise was born in an apartment building on Central Park West that “breathed Paris,” and virtually raised by an adoptive family of other related Beaux Arts buildings, such as Penn Station, the New York Yacht Club, Grand Central, and the New York Public Library, which set a high standard for her appreciation of the power of buildings to shape people and dignify public space. In archival clips, Charlie Rose interviewed the ever-alert Ada Louise, whom he caught off guard when he complimented her on her “amazingly wonderful face”: “I’m in shock,” she replied. “That will give me a year of pleasure, what you just said.”
"She had a kind of perfect pitch and her readers trusted her. They saw her passion and her knowledge and her unending degree of common sense, and all these things together made readers feel that she was writing for them, that every word was part of a conversation—a conversation that existed just for them." —Paul Goldberger
Architecture critics Paul Goldberger and Christopher Hawthorne spoke about her mentorship from their respective points of view at The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, affirming the Getty’s claim to her, recounted the many stages of her direct and indirect involvement with the Getty, including her role on the committee selecting its architect, Richard Meier, FAIA (who was in the audience).
"It has become common, even fashionable, to use Ada Louise’s name as a shorthand for criticism that is tough, savvy, politically minded, concerned real estate power plays and the life of the street and the city, rather than with the formal achievements or failures of single buildings by well-known architects. … But what has struck me time and again in going back to her criticism, more than toughness and 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." —Christopher Hawthorne
Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, the only architect speaking, then came to the podium and couldn't resist noting that he had “submitted for the Getty.” He remembered her tough but ultimately encouraging writing, and their bouts as jurors on the Pritzker Prize, when she won him over (and everyone else) to her opinion with her well-argued and persistent persuasions.
"She fought the good fight against urban renewal, which wiped out whole blocks of the past with bulldozers. She loved cities, and the experience of cities and especially this one, and she envied people from the sticks who could come and be knocked by the massiveness and the density of New York City. She did not care for Washington, which she described as a city of mock palaces clearly built for clerks, a city of endless corridors, of the big, the bland and the banal." —Garrison Keillor
Nearly all the speakers quoted from Huxtable’s greatest hits—though most of her articles during the prime of her career at The New York Times were about issues in New York and its orbit cities, Los Angeles is now the repository of her legacy, where her archives now reside at the Getty—and her words sailed over everything else that was said by virtue of their clarity, acumen, and catch, proving that her architectural observations, however acute, were delivered with such writerly skill that it was the fusion of observation with rhetoric that powered her critiques.
"Practicing as a young architect on the West Coast was a lot under the radar. Even though I think I wished for her attention, I was scared of it. When she finally poked her nose into my world, she was a tough critic, as everybody explained, [but] wonderful, the words were beautiful. She was positive, critical, encouraging. She used her power to get people thinking and caring about architecture, in a meaningful way. This was no small feat. I look around the city and others around the world, and see her influence and legacy." —Frank Gehry, FAIA
Her indelible prose virtually tattooed buildings: When she damned, it was not with faint praise but full body blows, ad aedificum if not exactly ad hominem. The steely little lady had New York street smarts, but delivered with a well-bred diction that still jumps off the page. As speakers noted, the understructure of her architectural value system was authenticity, but she also wrote by the same standards: She was no phony. If her style and presence were stately, her critiques always had the courage and spirit she admired in buildings: The bite still stings, and the values she espoused will continue to endure. Her writing will live.
Correction, June 7: A previous version of this story quoted Christopher Hawthorne describing Huxtable’s criticism as “short” and “stabby,” instead of “tough” and “savvy.” See the corrected quote in paragraph seven above.