By Carter B. Horsley
Great news. She's back.
Better news. She's not amused.
Best news. She's excited about some new architecture
that "may be the best kept secret in the arts".
She is Ada Louise Huxtable, the dean of American
architecture critics who well deserved the Pulitzer Prize she
won a generation ago when she was a critic for The New York Times.
(The Wall Street Journal announced April 9, 1997, that she has
become its new architecture critic, a couple of days after The
New York Times Sunday Book Review gave this important new book
a less than rave review by Witold Rybcynski!)
She is a great writer whose style concatenates
with the juggernaut of her well-reasoned passion.
She is a very elegant Energizer Bunny of architectural
criticism, booming away on her drum to wake up the masses and
the elite not only to the follies, but also the excrescencies
and errors of the built environment. After her unexpectedly early
retirement from The Times too many years ago, the country lost
its most regularly ardent and thoughtful evangelist for a better
built environment. Fortunately, she continued to write books and
this is the first in a while and her best and most important.
Her theme here is the appalling quality of
most popular American architecture and the subsequent blurring
of lines and, more importantly, values, between reproduction and
original, a cultural phenomenon by no means related only to architecture
but an increasingly pervasive American malaise. It is not merely
sensation-seeking, thrill-titillated, tingy Tabloidism and lowest
common demoninatoritis that pains Huxtable, and others, but the
increasing absence of value altogether, the collapse of differentiating
skills, the abyss of mediocrity and an anti-elitism that elevates
a quota-mentality to the pantheon of celebration.
Huxtable, of course, is aiming at the malling
of America, the theme-parking of downtowns, the Las Vegasizing
of the arcane, the generic, the original.
She is the first to admit that sometimes such
endeavors are amusing, even pleasant. "Neatness counts,"
"In today's fractured and deeply troubled
society the need is for something that comforts, reassures, and
entertains - a world where harsh truths can be suspended or forgotten
for a benign and soothing, preferably distracting, substitute.
The nostalgic simplifications of feel-good, particularly, romanticized
history are the popular and profitable answer," Huxtable
Her past battle cries were heard and often
not in vain. Indeed, preservationists rallied and a change of
attitude, in no small part stemming from her work, gradually lead
to a widespread yen for things of yore. One night we all woke
up to the Post-Modern Period and watched Philip Johnson and Robert
A. M. Stern adorn their projects with historic flourishes and
Huxtable's perception is acute:
"What concerns me as much as the state
of American building is the American state of mind, in which illusion
is preferred over reality to the point where the replica is accepted
as genuine and the simulacrum replaces the source. Surrogate experience
and surrogate environments have become the American way of life.
Distinctions are no longer made, or deemed necessary, between
the real and the false; the edge usually goes to the latter, as
an improved version with defects corrected - accessible and user-friendly
- although the resonance of history and art in the authentic artifact
is conspicuously lacking
A public increasingly addicted to
fakes and fantasies is unprepared and unwilling to understand
the unfamiliar and, often admittedly difficult new work, although
its complexities answer to the contemporary condition."
Of course, one could argue that this is merely
high-brow indictment of low-brow taste, but Huxtable is far more
sophisticated than that. It is interesting to note,
however, that she does not cast much blame in the direction
of style-makers and leaders, including the media and politicians,
and that she also does not pay much heed, here, to the Not In
My Back Yard (NIMBY) syndrome in which local do-gooders oppose
almost all new proposals not so much as to preserve the status
quo, which is sometimes the case, but merely to assert their new,
fresh power as self-anointed community activists. Clearly, there
are many fine civic activists who have courageously and selfishly
worked to improve some projects and to prevent terrible losses,
but over the last decade or so, the record, particularly in such
cities as New York, is rife with an abuse of community power working
to the detriment of borough- or city-wide good.
Huxtable's historicity is quite heroic:
today's city is more than failed
sociology measured against past grandeur; a troubled organism
in constant evolution, it is still the repository of the richest
record imaginable, available to anyone who looks. There is so
much that is so interesting, strange, surprising, and beautiful,
so fully alive with meaning, in our cities, now measured in centuries,
where unsuspected treasures still guard secret lives. We pay homage
to landmarks but are cavalier about their context. The artificial
environments we flock to in preference are one-dimensional con
games by contrast, their attractions and satisfactions limited,
illusory, and equally out for the money."
Nobly, Huxtable attacks "the denial of
the diversity and eloquence of change and continuity, and
devaluation of those deposits of history and humanity that make
our cities vehicles of a special kind of art and experience without
parallel or peer. Of course, we like our memories better all cleaned
up. The gritty and sometimes unlovely accumulations that characterize
cities are the best and worst of what we have produced; they exert
a fascination that no neatly edited version can inspire
edit life, to sanitize the substance of history, is to risk losing
the art, actuality, and meaning of the real past and its intrinsic
Colonial Williamsburgh, she recounts, demolished
a lot of old properties and invented a lot of colors and changed
some proportions. It is not perfect.
"At best, preservation is a necessary
but ambiguous effort; there is nothing tidy about it," Huxtable
warns, adding that history "is both charged and changed by
the prism of passing time" and "The past lives only
as part of the present."
Huxtable correctly weighs in for sensitive
re-use of historic properties and hints that restorations that
leave as much old intact as possible but clearly marks the repairs,
the additions, much like museum restorations of ancient sculptures
where the restorations are a different material or color, may
be better, a compelling point. Who doesn't love ruins?
But another analogy can be made to the art
of painting where most restorers will "in-paint" paint
loss on an Old Master to make it invisible and not jar the overall
effect. Sometimes the eye is drawn only to the imperfection, blinding
appreciation of the whole. Huxtable does not fall into the trap
of black-and-whitism and understands that different projects often
require different solutions and that a purist approach can be
Change is at the very heart of architecture.
One often designs something different for a specific site than
what was there. As the last third of the book amply demonstrates,
of course, Huxtable is very sensitive and absorbed with change.
For much of her distinguished career, she has
railed for the cause of historic preservation, sometimes to the
loss of more commentary on modern architecture.
While many have been pleased with the attendant
attention paid to the importance of "context" and the
concomitant spurning of the Modernist aesthetic that stripped
away ornamentation and bore the brunt of almost all that was deemed
brutally ugly, Huxtable has not been sitting smugly and complacent.
This is a lady who has taken off her white
this is a country in near-total architectural
retreat." She does not shy away from pondering whether the
very popular New Urbanism of pretty rural communities are is "avoiding
the questions of urbanization to become part of the problem"
She is disenchanted with much of the Disney world: "Most
disheartening of all in a place built on and dedicated to imagination
is the lack of it
Let's face it, the Disney dream is terminally
Although she says she does "not see the
theme park as the greatest invention since the Roman arch,"
Huxtable actually has some nice words for some theatrical recent
creations in Las Vegas.
There, she found architect Jon Jerde's 1,400-ft-long
, 90-ft.-high, curved space frame an interesting reversal of the
traditional "drive-by" to a "be-in": "This
is the real, real fake, at the highest and loudest level of illusionistic
artifice." She was also amused by the "wonderfully improbable"
facade of the ludicrous new casino called New York New York
But Jerde's Canal City Hakata Fukuoka, which
opened in Japan last year, appears to Huxtable "more like
a city-buster than salvation," adding that "as a way
to create a 'fundamentally new expression of city,' it is a stunning
exercise in architectural and urban hubris. There is an awful
lot of moondust in the mix." Perhaps, but its donut building
over a canal is the most interesting of many illustrations in
Huxtable maintains that the best of the "new"
architecture "is the most dramatic, challenging, innovative,
and important architecture to be produced in a long time, that
it is a not-so-gentle revolution, but that it is also a revolution
going unnoticed even in the intellectual circles were such things
are charted, and is, in fact, being largely ignored."
This is a new Huxtable who is a bit demoralized
about the sorry state of much American architecture, but nonetheless
ecstatic about changes in the architectural air.
Of Post-Modern landmarks like the Pittsburgh
Plate Glass complex in Pittsburgh and the RepublicBank Center
in Houston, both by Johnson-Burgee, Huxtable is not thrilled:
"History used like wallpaper trashes both history and architecture."
Perhaps, but both are very striking and monumental projects that
significantly boosted the architectural presence in their respective
cities and while gimmicky are startling and valid, unlike the
same architects' former A.T.&T./ now Sony building on Madison
Avenue at 56th Street, which is out of scale and clumsy.
Huxtable is a bit wary of Deconstructivisim: "Drawings of
baffling beauty and stupefying complexity remain unbuilt, and
buildings that look as if they are falling down or flying apart
achieve that effect only by being as carefully put together as
.Spectacular images can bring equally spectacular
dysfunction. For better or worse, however, nothing guarantees
a four-star architectural attraction quite like a dose of revolutionary
obscurantism, and there is little that is more seductively appealing
to the young than being terminally iconoclastic.
Nonetheless, Huxtable never veers far off course.
Huxtable finds that some new work, like that
of Peter Eisenman, the nation's most abstruse and intellectual
architect, "intensely self-indulgent and almost incommunicable
But she finds much to admire in a lot of new
architecture: "The best of this work is neither simple nor
soothing, but neither is the world we live in. It offers no familiar
fast fixes. It is not the post-modernist posturing or classical
backpedaling taking place on the celebrity skyline."
Huxtable has high praise for much of the work
of American Frank Gehry, Alvaro Siza of Portugal, Tadao Ando of
Japan and the late James Stirling of England.
Among the interesting practitioners of the
"new" architecture she mentions at Thom Mayne and Michael
Rotondi (both formerly associated as Morphosis), Eric Owen Moss,
Mark Mack, Peter Pfau, Wes Jones, Julie Eizenberg, Henrik Koning,
and Robert Mangurian, Steven Holl, Wolf Prix, Zaha Hadid, Sir
Norman Foster, Sir Richard Rogers, Nicholas Grimshaw, Rafael Moneo,
Enric Miralles, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaus, Christian de Portzamparc,
Toyo Ito, Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung.
Missing from her discussion of great contemporary
designers, however, are many of the great Japanese architects,
Kohn Pedersen Fox, Helmut Jahn, S.I.T.E., Emilio Ambasz, Architecture
Studio and Daniel Libeskind, a group arguably more exciting and
In her conclusion, Huxtable beats out a fearful
"It was not until our own day that this
great art became irrelevant, that the tradition of building well
ceased to matter. For those in positions of power, architecture
has no redeeming value; it is a frill to be eliminated as a virtuous,
cost-cutting, vote-getting measure; it can be abandoned without
regret. It took today's mean mentality to see cathedrals and courthouses
as 'wasted space,' to consider beauty as an extravagant and expendable
add-on only now has that impoverishment of the human spirit become
politically and aesthetically correct. What no one appears to
have noticed, while deploring the decline of public standards,
is that trashy buildings trash the institutions and people they
Her excitement about the current level of architectural
creativity, of course, leaves the reader in an optimistic mood,
even if the specific examples she dwells on are not necessarily
the best representatives of the new poetics.
Short Huxtable quotes do not do her justice.
Her message is more important than her details and her likes and
dislikes. It is a rush to quality, not stylistic, but artistic,
not trendy, but lasting, not personable but perishable, not astonishing
but evanescent, not static nor statuesque, but encompassing and