Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Literary Dose #47: Ada Louise Huxtable

Yesterday Ada Louise Huxtable died at the age of 91. Admiration for the influential architecture critic can be found all over the internet, on architecture and other websites reporting on her passing. In lieu of adding my own thoughts, which basically align with most of what has been written, I've transcribed a couple paragraphs from the introduction of Huxtable's 1986 book Architecture, Anyone?, the last collection of her essays from the New York Times, where she was architecture critic until 1982.

First, Huxtable gives a little bit of advice to would-be architecture critics:
"Obviously, I have enjoyed the work [at the New York Times], and I have also enjoyed the rewards. I was alone when I started—the first and only full-time architecture critic in the American press—a fact that is generally forgotten along with The Times's brave gamble on establishing the position, based on the belief that the quality of the built word mattered at a time when environment was still only a dictionary word. Now there are cover stories and full-color treatments of buildings and architects and state-of-the-art articles in the weekly news journals. Architecture has taken its hyped-up place on the world stage of celebrity journalism, and developers have discovered the market value of designer labels. There are legions, or battalions, of critics an would-be critics, with vision ranging from the flyspeck to the apocalyptic, in fashionable pursuit of architectural answers to questions that purport to address the hot topics of art and life. To them I say, with feeling, lots of luck."
And later she sums up her take on the postmodernism that was popular at the time, though some of the sentiments can be extended to the present:
"Unfortunately, much of the present theoretical and critical discourse has renounced [architecture's] public role for a cop-out definition of architecture as a formal object that bears no relationship or responsibility to forces beyond its own forms. There is talk of symbolism, metaphor and typology, and a great deal of genuflecting to history with a thin veneer of stagy style that mocks the history it pretends to recall. Still more serious, there is a general acceptance today, in architecture and elsewhere, of the obsolescence and abandonment of value judgments, and a concerted effort to fill the vacuum with a well-screened—one might even call it an elite—populism or pluralism. Bombarded as we are with every kind of message, evaluations of meaning or worth are more important than ever. It is only the judgments based on the wistful oversimplification and willful blindness to the realities of the human condition which so flawed the modernist ideal that stand condemned. It is pious simplicities and paternalistic prescriptions based on false premises that are obsolete. The desire to pit a limited and artificial academic order, whether historicist or modernist, against the disorderly inequities and gritty vitality of the real world, is a shallow, fruitless act."
- Ada Louise Huxtable from Architecture, Anyone? Cautionary Tales of the Builidng Art (University of California Press, 1986, pp. xiv, xvii)