Ada Louise Huxtable. Picture taken in the 1960s.
Credit: Garth Huxtable Ada Louise Huxtable. Picture taken in the 1960s.

Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic whose work shaped both The New York Times and New York City, has died at 91.

The Wall Street Journal, where Huxtable wrote her final article in December, reports that she died at Manhattan's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

There are few precedents for writing about architecture that Huxtable did not herself establish over the course of her career, which spanned more than 60 years. Huxtable was the first architecture critic for The New York Times, a post she held from 1963 to 1982, which followed long stints with the magazines Progressive Architecture and Art in America. After leaving The New York Times, Huxtable served as the critic at The Wall Street Journal for more than 15 years.

Huxtable set the tone not just for architecture criticism at the paper of record but for criticism broadly construed. She was recognized with the Pulitzer Prize—the first ever awarded for criticism—in 1970.

Huxtable wrote 10 books on architecture, including a 2004 biography of Frank Lloyd Wright and a 2008 followup for Penguin's "A Life" series as well as a critical memoir. But her career may be better measured by the influence that she had on the field than by the books that she published. Within hours of the report of Huxtable's death, critics and readers took to social media to express their appreciation for her. 

Alexandra Lange devoted part of her 2012 book, Writing About Architecture, to Huxtable's criticism, reproducing in its entirety the critic's 1968 story for The New York Times, "Sometimes We Do It Right."

That piece, ostensibly a review of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Marine Midland Bank, surveyed the broader significance of Manhattan architecture and its urban fabric in the years before the construction of the World Trade Center. 

"So how do you read a building?" Lange writes, in an essay about Huxtable's essay. "As with any craft, start with the best example you can think of and pick it apart until you see how it was done."

Vanity Fair architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote a tribute to Huxtable in 1996, the year before she began her tenure at The Wall Street Journal. Goldberger joined The New York Times in 1973 and served as Huxtable's second chair until she left the paper in 1982. 

"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," reads Goldberger's tribute. "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."

Despite moving between publications over the course of her career, Huxtable never yielded her bully pulpit. Her 2011 story on the renovation of the Empire State Building benefited from her long perspective: She knew the Art Deco skyscraper from its glory days and had witnessed the misguided 1960s renovation that diminished its standing on the Manhattan skyline. In that same story, she gestured in the direction of the World Trade Center, a project she had known from creation to destruction.

"I, for one, am not in thrall to size; build very big and you can build very bad—and the very bad will be inescapable," Huxtable wrote. "I always felt that the twin towers disrupted New York's scale and skyline without compensating grace."

A plain illustration of Huxtable's authority came in December. For what would be the last piece published in her lifetime, Huxtable took the New York Public Library to task for failing to release clear details regarding its planned consolidation and restoration by Foster + Partners. "If the library feels that the plan has been vastly misunderstood, it is its own fault; its communications are deplorable," she writes—before describing, in great detail, details and schematics promised to her and promises subsequently broken. 

Huxtable concluded that no changes to the New York Public Library could be appropriate: "[A]fter extensive study of the library's conception and construction I have become convinced that irreversible changes of this magnitude should not be made in this landmark building. I am not going to rehearse the intellectual, literary and sentimental arguments already on the record. This is all about the building, a subject that has not been adequately addressed."

Sixteen days later, the New York Public Library released renderings by Foster + Partners. In its story on the renderings, The New York Times plainly took care to credit Huxtable—the newspaper's former standard bearer—for putting pressure on the library to make its case.

"My view of architecture has not changed," Huxtable said, back in 2008, in an interview whose author dubbed her the dean of American architectural criticism. "It’s the current scene that has changed."