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Architecture Critic Huxtable Remembered For Clever, Biting Commentary

Jan 8, 2013
Originally published on January 8, 2013 6:37 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable had a pillow stitched with the words: Ada Louise Huxtable already doesn't like it. That was the zingy caption of a New Yorker cartoon from 1968. The cartoon showed a rough construction site with only a single column erected. A construction worker in a hardhat is holding a newspaper reading Huxtable's scathing critique to the architect. Ada Louise Huxtable, who pioneered architecture criticism, died yesterday in Manhattan. She was 91.

Starting in 1963 at The New York Times, she was the first full-time architecture critic at an American newspaper, and she didn't mince words. Poetic grotesquerie, she said, panning one New York building. A die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollypops. Huxtable's successor at The New York Times, critic Paul Goldberger, joins me to talk about her legacy. Paul, thanks for being with us.

PAUL GOLDBERGER: Sure. Good to be here.

BLOCK: How did she help make architecture matter, do you think, not just as abstraction on the newspaper page but out in the world?

GOLDBERGER: Well, she really understood that buildings affect people, and that the kind of city we have affects the kinds of lives we live and the way we feel, and that even ordinary buildings have an impact on our lives, and extraordinary buildings have an even greater impact on our lives. You know, she loved New York in particular. She loved all cities but New York, especially. And she was always a little bit disappointed in it, wanting it to be better. And so she kept pushing it the way you might almost push a child you believed in who wasn't performing well enough and just said you've got to do better over and over again.

BLOCK: Hmm. And when a building fell short, boy, did she let people know about it. I was reading her review of the Kennedy Center when it was built here in Washington. She called it a national tragedy, a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried. Ouch.

GOLDBERGER: That's one of the great architecture criticism lines of all time, I think.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDBERGER: And it's amazing that Edward Durell Stone, the architect of that building, ever recovered from that.

BLOCK: Yeah. And buildings that she loved, though, what were her favorite buildings? When would she say: This is an example of what I prize.

GOLDBERGER: She loved great modern buildings. It's important to remember that when you remember that she was also probably the most important force in America in helping the historic preservation movement get going and grow into the big thing that it is, she was a huge advocate of saving things. But she never wanted to go back into the past. She really wanted us to continue to create great new things, and she loved great modern buildings. She loved the Seagram Building in New York. She loved I.M. Pei's East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which I recall her being more enthusiastic about perhaps than almost any other single building.

So when she saw an exciting, well-crafted, elegant, strong, modern building, she could be really impassioned and enthusiastic about it and could communicate her enthusiasm for it, as well as she could communicate her disapproval and unhappiness at a building that fell short.

BLOCK: Would Huxtable hear from architects or developers after an especially biting review?

GOLDBERGER: I think some of them would call her and argue. Some of them would call kind of sheepishly, and some of them would run in the other direction as fast as they could. I think it really depended on the temperament of whoever it was. And she was always courteous and respectful to anyone who approached her, even if they had a significant difference of opinion, but she understood at the end of the day her loyalty was to her readers and to the subject of architecture, not to the architects or developers she was writing about.

BLOCK: She must have loved that New Yorker cartoon that I mentioned.

GOLDBERGER: I think she did. In fact, I recall being in her apartment one day, and it was framed on the wall.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDBERGER: So she was actually very, very proud of the fact that she was enough of a household word for The New Yorker to do a cartoon about her.

BLOCK: Well, Paul Goldberger, thanks very much for talking with us.

GOLDBERGER: Sure. Great pleasure to talk to you.

BLOCK: That's architecture critic Paul Goldberger who succeeded Ada Louise Huxtable at The New York Times. He's now at Vanity Fair. Huxtable died yesterday. She was 91. Her last essay as architecture critic for The Wall Street Journal was published just last month.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.