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by Ada Louise Huxtable

The New Press, New York, 1997, pp. 188, $30.

"Today form follows feeling. . .

desire, not utility, dictates design."


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," she observes.

"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 notes.

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 references.

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…the 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….To edit life, to sanitize the substance of history, is to risk losing the art, actuality, and meaning of the real past and its intrinsic artifacts."

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 sometimes inhibiting.

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 gloves: "…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 uptight!"

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 this book!

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 Palladian villas….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 impressive.

In her conclusion, Huxtable beats out a fearful tune:

"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 serve."

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 evolving.

Buy it!

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