Ada Louise Huxtable is very much a lady, but she is a lady with clout. As architecture critic for the New York Times from 1963 to late 1973, she has established a reputation as the most influential voice in her field—winning, in 1970, the first Pulitzer Prize awarded for criticism. Today she continues to write an architectural column on Sunday and is also a member of the editorial board of the Times.
Architects, city planners, land speculators and politicians have been the object of her well-aimed barbs. Recently she discussed what’s good and bad about contemporary U.S. architecture with Lee Wohlfert of PEOPLE.
What do you look for in a contemporary building?
I look for beauty, utility, a quality of design that enhances your own sense of worth, makes you feel good. If you go into a depressing building built to the lowest level of cost and design, it makes you feel cheated. Louis Kahn, the late great architect, called architecture the thoughtful making of spaces—to which I would add, the making of spaces for people and their uses.
Do you look for the same things in a complex of buildings?
That gets into the question of how buildings work together, the progression of spaces, the pleasantness, the way people can circulate throughout them—the “people space.” I don’t care for New York’s Lincoln Center. The buildings are dull, backward, derivative, unoriginal, routine, hardly dramatic, unlike the new performing arts hall in Akron, Ohio. But Lincoln Center does all work together as an urban space—the fountain, the plaza, the restaurants. People enjoy using it.
Europe has many successful complexes, especially from the Renaissance. Florence’s Piazza Signoria is the classic center of a city, focused around a great building, with social spaces, cafes, statues.
What others work well?
Rockefeller Center in New York. As a complex, it focuses dramatically on the RCA Building which relates to the less tall buildings and ground spaces around it. It is planned to give people the pleasurable experience of walking through it, through the arcades, past the skating rink to the Radio City Music Hall. The whole ground level is delightful to visitors. The gardens are part of the buildings. People working in those offices circulate in underground passageways. It’s a city on two levels, an esthetic pleasure, a great functional convenience.
What about the quality of public architecture today?
With few exceptions, it has been consistently bad. The reason is that the selection of architects for public buildings is usually a highly political process, and you do not get the best architects. It is often corrupt, because contractors have their hands in the till or are playing with such political toys as pork barreling and patronage. The average commercial builder has never been concerned with making an environment that’s fit to live in or work in, just with putting up a building with the most profit to him.
What buildings do you admire?
I have always thought the Seagram Building was classy. It says New York is a sophisticated, luxury-conscious city. It is built to the most sophisticated esthetic standards. It pays homage to Mies van der Rohe’s dictum, “less is more,” in that it shows absolute simplicity and elegance of design. The materials—from the bronze exterior to the choice of the most beautifully grained, perfectly matched travertine marble—are done with finesse. The detail is exquisite, such as the way the metal is joined. Even the numbers on the elevators are done to painstaking perfection.
I do like the Boston City Hall too. It expresses the ideal of a civic center very well—the symbolic heart of a city. The plaza outside is not just a desolate, meaningless place, as so many plazas are—but a place people crowd to, such as in the summer for concerts. In the winter it is desolate, but I’ve yet to be there in the summer and not see kids jumping in the fountain.
What recent major U.S. buildings have disappointed you?
The national showcase in Washington, D.C.—the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I think the idea of a theater in Washington is great, but why should it be such a banal box—so spiritless, uninspired and mediocre? The World Trade Center in New York is a technological marvel, but it diminishes its own bigness. Its scale is petty and the detail is tawdry—not nearly so bold as such a large building requires.
I think the sloped surface—or “bell bottom”—buildings in New York are bad because they are egotistical. They break the line of the street in an upsetting way. They show scraps of exposed sides of buildings next door. They say “look at me” in a way buildings should not.
Just as people gain in charm and character by being considerate to other people, I think buildings gain a bit by being modest—by being just part of the environment. To make a building so arrogant and individual is questionable.
Do architectural standards say anything about us as a people?
Certainly. We reveal ourselves through our architecture. If our standards are honorable so are our buildings. In the medieval period the cathedral was the dominant building, which reflected spiritual values. In our day the dominant building is the commercial skyscraper—which shows our values as economic.
I think the corruption running through Watergate is the same corruption running through much of our architecture—the contributions, kickbacks, pork barreling. The concern is not design. Too often we’ve gotten the buildings we deserve in a Watergate era—very meanspirited.
How does a poorly designed building affect people who use it?
Well, there’s a sociological word “anomie”—which means a sense of not belonging, of being depressed and alienated. I think buildings cause these feelings very strongly by filing people away in boxes—with no community relationship, no shared spaces.
Nonetheless, has America made any contributions to world architecture?
When done well, the skyscraper, particularly the American form of it, is the great building of our time. It couldn’t have been built without the 19th-and 20th-century technologies. I think it is one of the most poetic types of building in the world—our modern vernacular, which we owe largely in its concept to Mies van der Rohe. Perhaps such buildings have become less legitimate. They were built to use cheap energy which we no longer have.
But I like the lightness, reflections and transparency of the glass curtain-walled skyscraper—the whole idea of dematerializing something that throughout history has always had to be so heavy.
I think we’re so close to the skyscraper now that we can’t appreciate it. But if we were to stand away and look at the 20th century and its skyscrapers, we would say, “My God.” They will be viewed much as we now view the cathedrals of Europe.
You’ve been very involved in the preservation of old landmark buildings. Is this really worth the cost to the taxpayer?
Well, first of all, a people without a past are people without a heart or history. The juxtaposition of the old and the new enhances both. I love to see a building with a flat glass facade beside one we can’t afford to build any more, a building of sculptured stone. One is enriched by the other, as in Boston. Next to the old Faneuil Hall market there are new office buildings, including the new City Hall. If you walk through a new section of town, you get bored in five minutes, but in an old section you can browse for hours.
What changes are happening in your field that you find exciting?
The changes may seem dry as dust, but they influence architecture and city planning or design. For example, modern Paris is laid out in a spoked pattern because of Baron Haussmann—who wanted to be able to aim cannons down all the streets.
Today our zoning laws take the place of Baron Haussmann. We’re doing things in a legal way, such as setting a kind of overall pattern for a section of the city, and then writing the zoning laws so the builders have to follow it. It’s excellent. Otherwise you get development by profiteering.
Remember, Julius Caesar changed Rome simply by banning carts from it. I wish our mayors would do that—ban cars. That might inspire some delightful and surprising changes.