Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic, dies at 91

From the obituary, "Ada Louise Huxtable, Pulitzer-winning architecture critic, dies at 91," in the Washington Post:

In an interview Monday, architecture critic Edward Lifson said Mrs. Huxtable was an eminence in journalism but also in architecture, where her opinions were highly regarded among city planners and designers.

Lifson said her view of architecture was that “it’s never about the developer, or the theory or new heights, or innovation for innovation's sake. It was about how this improves the user. Is this fair, is this just? She compared it to an ideal: Is this the best project that could be on this site? Or is it good enough for us? Is this how we should be remembered? Or are we being sold down the river?”

Foremost, Mrs. Huxtable was concerned with the betterment of the city in which she spent nearly her whole life. “When it is good, New York is very, very good,” she wrote in 1968. “Which is why New Yorkers put up with so much that is bad. When it is good, this is a city of fantastic strength, sophistication and beauty.

(Interestingly, I've been meaning to write a post on the debacle over changes at the main NYPL library at Bryant Park, in part discussing her long piece in the Wall Street Journal on the topic a couple months ago.  My point was going to be "be careful what you wish for."  Her piece lambasted NYPL for not providing renderings and more detailed analysis for the proposed changes.  Now that NYPL has provided that data and renderings, the "eye candy" of the renderings is likely to wow enough people that the proponents for maintaining the library's research focus are likely to be overwhelmed by supporters of the changes.)

-- obituary from the New York Times
-- "Ada Louise Huxtable, the gold standard," Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune
-- "Q&A" with Ada Louise Huxtable (and others), Architect's Newspaper, 2005

Ada Louise Huxtable is a good example of why having a focused and high quality urban design-architecture beat in local media is so important. Only a few cities in North America (San Francisco--John King, Chicago--Blair Kamin, Philadelphia--Inga Saffron, and Toronto--Christopher Hume, plus New York City--Robin Pogrebin writes on urban design for the New York Times and Los Angeles--Christopher Hawthorne, but too infrequently) are so blessed. (Plus Washington.)

It is the quality of place, and the buildings and public realm from which it is constructed and then filled with by people and activity that makes cities vital.

From the NYT obit:

Though knowledgeable about architectural styles, Ms. Huxtable often seemed more interested in social substance. She invited readers to consider a building not as an assembly of pilasters and entablatures but as a public statement whose form and placement had real consequences for its neighbors as well as its occupants. ...

For her part Ms. Huxtable said The [New York] Times made a “brave gamble” in the “belief that the quality of the built world mattered, at a time when environment was still only a dictionary word.”

A good architecture-urban design writer in a regularly published venue brings ongoing attention to these matters, when more typically in most cities they are ignored.

I'm not knocking Philip Kennicott of the Post, he just doesn't write very frequently on architecture and urban design matter. Probably Roger Lewis is good, it's just after reading his stuff--his column runs every two weeks in the Real Estate section on Saturdays--for 25 years, I'm a bit bored with it, although I have to admit reading him month after month taught me a lot.

And Ada Louise Huxtable was one of the best.

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At 5:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOLOL... she didn't have much good to say about DC--hated the KenCen.

"Pulitzer Prize-winner Ada Louise Huxtable meditates on modern American architecture and its implications in The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, a book based on a lecture she delivered to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Huxtable argues that theme parks, shopping malls, historic restorations, and towns like Disney's Celebration create "surrogate environments" detached from the reality of everyday experience. She rails against historic preservation, claiming that attempts to re-create the past in such places as Ellis Island and Boston's Faneuil Hall result in hollow shadows of the originals that have little to offer the modern viewer. The marriage of culture and consumerism in these places also gets Huxtable's gourd. She seems to feel that much of this architecture is designed for the sole purpose of impelling consumerism. In the preface, Huxtable writes that as a young journalist she was told to "tell the reader what you think," and here she does exactly that with fervor and clarity."



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