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Land Matters: Told Straight

How amusing of Ada Louise Huxtable to write, in the introduction to On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change, “Critics are no more clairvoyant than their fellow mortals.” The book, published in 2008, compiles many of her best pieces of architecture criticism, starting in 1963, from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Review of Books.

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On first reading, I had skipped the introduction and gone straight to the section on the birth and death of the World Trade Center, the book’s most troubling part. It starts with an ominous 1966 Times piece on the hugeness of the imminent project and ends with a piece from 2006 on what the site was about to become again after a charade of post-disaster design competitions.

Not a week after the 9/11 attacks, Huxtable wrote in the Journal: “If the usual scenario is followed, the debate will lead to a ‘solution’ in which principle is lost and an epic opportunity squandered.” She may not have been clairvoyant, but she had clearly been around enough to predict one of the most expensive and anticlimactic acts of building ever. If Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the Twin Towers site, didn’t gulp with shame as he read Huxtable, then he really is everything she said he is, and then some.

It’s hard to convey the void Huxtable created in architecture by dying on January 7 at the age of 91. Her greatness as a critic lay in her confident, plain language, but more importantly in her deep reporting, which had to yield reams of information that she left on the floor of her office, sparing the reader, though all of it fed her budgeted column inches, sentence by ferric sentence. There will be no substitutes—there hadn’t been in almost 50 years, and nothing will change.

I am not the only one carrying around her last piece, which ran in the Journal in early December, like a song in my head. It was about a plan by Norman Foster to basically gut the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. From the opening sentence, not to be read lightly, it is as if war had been declared. “There is no more important landmark building in New York than the New York Public Library…”

There have been a number of fun and moving tributes to Huxtable. Some have noted her overriding faith in good public space and the experience people have of cities “from the corner.” What should not go unnoted is her recognition in later years that landscape architects were doing the important work that architects thought they had been doing. In 2005, of the Groundswell exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, she wrote: “In one of those totally unpredictable shifts in sensibility that occur when least expected, it is the landscape architects who are re-engaging today’s radically innovative aesthetic with human needs and social functions; this is where the essential connections with the human condition are being made.”

Huxtable once told a French journalist that she wrote “from crisis to crisis.” Crisis is a loaded word around a French intellectual, but it’s true. It takes the kind of deep immersion Huxtable had in all of the forces that make a city—the shabby real estate people, the idiotic agencies, the lawyers, not to mention the architects—to write in a way that makes a difference. Anything else is chitchat.

In 2006, when the deals looked sealed on the uninspiring state of Ground Zero today, she wrote what New York needed to hear: “I do not believe for a moment that we are no longer capable of building great cities of symbolic beauty and enduring public amenity. What Ground Zero tells us is that we have lost the faith and the nerve, the knowledge and the leadership, to make it happen now.”

Bradford McKee
Editor
Landscape Architecture Magazine



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