When as notable a critic as Ada Louise Huxtable passes on, it is fitting that those who worked with her and knew her best offer her praise for a life well spent. For those of us who knew her only through her extensive writings and were not personally acquainted, penning an obituary seems a bit pretentious.
Yet, saying nothing about the writer who perhaps single-handedly defined architectural criticism would be inappropriate, if not derelict.
For Ada Louise Huxtable, who spent decades reviewing architecture and the urban form for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, carried on a tradition with roots as far back as John Ruskin. She was the literary equal of Siegfried Giedeon and Lewis Mumford and probably reached a wider audience than either of those giants.
While much of her writing focused on the New York world of architecture, the rest of the world read her and avidly. It seemed that her words applied as equally to San Francisco, where I live, as to Manhattan. Had a free press existed in China, who knows what lessons she would have doled out to the political functionaries of Shanghai? In what turned out to be her last piece, she took New York’s Public Library to task and she was right. Who wouldn’t want to go out on top like that?
No, it’s not easy to add to what her many colleagues and admirers have said over the last day. Instead of doing so, perhaps it’s best to ask how we will continue in our commentary and thinking and designing of buildings and cities. To put it tritely, what will we apply to ourselves from the life and writings of Ada Louise Huxtable?
For those of us who write about or teach design and architecture, we are called upon to speak with clarity, honesty, and engagement. Huxtable’s gift, as it were, was communicating easily on a topic that is largely foreign to most readers. Her ability to simplify and illuminate previously arcane concepts was her genius.
The architects and designers who create our buildings should consider how they describe and speak about their work; so many design professionals resist using language to explain their work. Elected officials and commissioners and planners should recall anew their charge to serve the public and the public good; future Huxtables will be there to confront them. And the non-architectural public could perhaps, just perhaps, give a little more thought to the one thing we all live and work and exist in—buildings.
A bit idealistic to wish for? Huxtable, ever the pragmatist critic would likely have thought so. But I can think of no more fitting memorial to one who provided such inspiration: Ada Louise Huxtable.