Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-2013)

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Ada Louise Huxtable, the country's most respected and feared architecture critic whose finely crafted articles, essays and books held architects and their works to high humanistic standards, died January 7. She was 91.

Ada Louise was most recently the architecture critic for the Wall Street Journal, but she was an early mentor of mine when I worked as a college intern at The New York Times in the late 1970s and she was a member of the Editorial Board. A formidable and elegant presence, Ada Louise's eyes could simultaneously exude quiet understanding and steely aggression—leaving powerful male editors and architects unsure of her thoughts and heistant to learn more.   

As a critic, Ada Louise believed firmly that urban planning, buildings of historic note, and new structures had certain civic obligations. To be sure, buildings had a functional purpose and economic constraints, but they also had a distinct responsibility to enrich the streetscape and improve society's quality of life. 

For architecture and interior design to be considered significant by Ada Louise, they not only had to be magnificently bold but also respect the people who would have to use them and raise the public's collective aesthetic. Ada Louise believed that architecture wasn't the private domain of minds that knew better but a practice charged with elevating how a community felt about itself and its future.    

To readers of this blog who believe they don't care a lick about architecture or understand its value, I can tell you that you actually do. Just as you can tell the difference between a gorgeous Nelson Riddle arrangement and a cheap chart, your soul can discern between what pleases your eye and what is offensive. The uninitiated simply need to switch on the line of communication between the eyes, heart and thoughts.

Ada Louise's writings helped bridge those gaps, describing in simple but eloquent terms why a design succeeded or failed. And she could do so effortlessly, with deft praise or the swish-swish of a literary foil. No one took misguided architects and lousy architecture to task like Ada Louise. As a reader, you almost felt sorry for the subject of her criticism—until you were reminded of the work that person left behind. 

The reason I love architecture today and write about architects for the Wall Street Journal (in addition to music) is largely because of Ada Louise. When I worked at The Times while in college, part of my job was to make sure that the dozen or so books that arrived each day for her were removed from their envelopes or tight corregated packaging and stacked neatly in her office. (I also had daily duties for the other 15 or so editorial board members and Op-Ed editors.)

Ada Louise wasn't a tall woman, but whatever she lacked in imposing height was more than offset by her untouchable elegance and poised stare. In other words, she was apart and feared, particularly by those like me whose job it was to make sure all was in order. Each day before she arrived, I assembled the new books on Eero Saarinen, Alvar Aalto, the Chicago school, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Stick style, John Ruskin, Frank Lloyd Wright and dozens of others. [Photo above of Ada Louise Huxtable and “the stare"—in the New York Times newsroom in 1970 with chairman Athur Ochs Sulzberger after winning the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism; by Librado Romero]

These were big books, before publishing became cheap, with huge full-page photos and wonderfully written captions and text. Little by little, I became more and more curious and enamored—not with the nuts and bolts of architecture but the glory, the beauty and the reasons why some buildings and cities were spectacular and others were garish and meaningless. To understand the difference, I needed to know everything.

One morning, I lingered too long in her office reading one of her new books, and Ada Louise surprised me—before I could leave and turn off her lights. Fumbling, I apologized for being there. But rather than chastise me, Ada Louise asked what I was reading. When I showed her the book on Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, she asked me if it was good. I told her it was and asked how something so simple could be so captivating and impossibly beautiful. [Photo above by Gene Maggio]

I can't remember her exact words, but Ada Louise said something about lines and geometry being very powerful things when used boldly and placed in nature just so, and that when a building's materials and design respected who were as people, they made us feel special. She insisted I keep the book.

Back at college, I began taking a long series of architecture courses that gave me a finer appreciation of the profession, the history and the art. Each time I returned to The Times for a tour of duty (I was enrolled in a five-year work-study program at Northeastern University in Boston), my conversations with Ada Louise grew longer, as did our correspondence.

Naturally, when I began writing on architecture for The Wall Street Journal in 2010, I felt a certain confidence and satisfaction—understanding not only the importance of the form but also the history and what makes certain buildings and architects special. My first piece was on Manhattan's modernist Mad Men office lobbies that had remained intact since their installation in the '50s and early '60s (go here).

That's when it happened. Ada Louise, who was the paper's architecture critic at the time, saw the article and sent along an email:

“Marc - Wonderful piece. Who else is a connoisseur of those lobbies and could have written so delightfully and knowledgeably about them! So glad the WSJ gave it such a great display. Liked the anchoring quotes too - they added that extra stamp of authoritative comment.' And you may have scooped the new locale [of Mad Men], too - lovely. -All best, Ada Louise"

Yesterday, I choked up re-reading that email. Ada Louise and her books opened a new world of adventure for me back in the '70s that continues to this day. She also taught me that passion, when applied just so as a writer, can help your words leap to life and sweep readers up in your joy. Ada Louise was special. Her many books—given to me as gifts so long ago—still remind me always to do my best.

Here's Ada Louise three years ago on Charlie Rose...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved.

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