Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Ada Louise Huxtable already doesn't like it..."

Memory is a funny thing. Even the mental lock-boxes that we shove to the far recesses of our minds--for reasons of pain, or pride, perhaps--contain surprisingly sweet moments.

In very early 2008, I was among those made redundant in one of publishing’s great purges. Suffice to say that most of that year is buried in an expletive-laden, self-pitying (and self-loathing) file consigned to the dustiest shelf in my memory. The happy hours are all but forgotten amidst the fog of angst and disappointment. Yesterday, however, with the sad death of Ada Louise Huxtable, the opportunity arose to unearth some meaningful recollections of that otherwise annus horribilis.

I first had the pleasure of meeting the redoubtable Ada Louise Huxtable over tea at The Carlyle. Diminutive in stature, she was impeccably dressed and elegantly coiffed in a manner befitting the doyenne of architectural critique. We were sitting down with her publisher (my former employer) to discuss what kind of a book she might be interested in putting together. I’ll admit that I was a little in awe. I’d been reading her columns and articles in preparation for this meeting and I knew she took real pleasure in Modern Architecture, a feeling I had yet to cultivate for things built after, say, 1940. As tea progressed (following a rather alarming incident that involved the server spilling on Ms. Huxtable’s stylish Issye Miyaki jacket) and we discussed timing, options, and themes, I started to appreciate her thoughtful insights and forthright assessments of both architecture and book ideas.

Over the coming weeks we worked through several drafts of an outline/table of contents that would eventually become her book, On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change. I looked through some of our emails last night and was reminded how wonderfully articulate she was even in the most mundane of exchanges. In correspondence to another author with whom I was working at the time, I noted how Ms. Huxtable, then 87, was sharper and brighter than most people half of her age. Throughout the letters her willingness to be part of the process, which can be very tedious at times, was evident. There wasn’t much new writing for her to do, but we needed to organize her columns and other pieces in a way that really made sense. I still have high hopes that we mostly succeeded and I’m quite proud to have played the smallest of parts in what would be her final work.

For me, the most poignant section of the book is Part 5. Centered around New York City, it contains a collection of Ms. Huxtable’s pieces on not only the construction of the World Trade Center complex, but of the aftermath of 9/11 and implications for both the former WTC site and Lower Manhattan, as well. All of her columns are worth reading--if for nothing more than her vivid and straightforward voice--but for New Yorkers, I think these will have meaningful resonance.

As the book began to take shape, I was afforded the distinct pleasure of visiting Ms. Huxtable at her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. While my memories of the building itself are frustratingly vague, I recall her space very well. Especially vivid is the memory of a simple, splendidly modern lighting fixture that had been designed by her late husband, industrial designer L. Garth Huxtable.

In the end, our book project quickly became an actual book. There was jacket copy to be sorted out, quotes/blurbs to be gathered, and photographs to be sourced. My final contribution to the book would be my photograph (on page 64, thank you very much) of Richard Meier’s Hartford Seminary. I chose a beautiful early spring day and made the short drive to Hartford. I was a little unprepared for how much I’d appreciate Meier’s unique edifice, of which Huxtable writes, “This glistening white structure makes its immaculate presence so inimitably clear that there is no question about which building one has come to see.” I shared my surprise with Ms. Huxtable during one of our penultimate conversations. I’m sure she’d heard it many times before, but I still felt the need to share with her how much she’d broadened and enriched my experience of architecture. I’ve always been enthralled with the grand (and often grandiose) buildings of history. Our built heritage is incredibly important to me. And yet, if you’d have discussed most post-war architecture with me, I’d likely have crinkled my nose dismissively. What a lot of the built world I would have missed out on.

And I guess this is what the best critics do, really. They don’t necessarily change our minds (give me McKim, Mead & White over Mies van der Rohe, as a personal preference) but they afford us the ability to enjoy and appreciate that which we may otherwise overlook. Ada Louise Huxtable, rightly famous for her specific taste, reminded us to pay attention. She wanted people to look at the environment they live in, to be aware of the structures that surround them on a daily basis.

It's safe to say that I didn't always agree with Ms. Huxtable's well-stated and fully-formed opinions, but I will always value the mindfulness that was at the heart of each of her critiques. 

There’s a blurb from Paul Goldberger on the back of the jacket that perhaps puts the life’s work of Ada Louise Huxtable in proper perspective:

“Ada Louise Huxtable has been more than just the most important pioneer of architectural criticism in newspapers in our time; she has been the most important figure in communicating the urgency of some kind of belief in the values of the man-made environment in our time, too. She has made people pay attention. She has made people care. She has made architecture matter in our culture in a way that it did not before her time...Before Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture was not part of the public dialogue. Today it is, and she is overwhelmingly responsible for this.”