Obituary: Ada Louise Huxtable / Pioneering architecture critic won a Pulitzer

March 14, 1921 - Jan. 7, 2013

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Ada Louise Huxtable, an architecture writer who received the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, in 1970, and was one of the most trenchant, biting and influential voices in her profession for more than half a century, died Monday at a hospital in New York City. She was 91.

Her attorney, Rob Shapiro, confirmed the death. He said she had cancer.

Writing initially for The New York Times, where the position of architecture critic was conceived for her in 1963, Ms. Huxtable emerged as a bold voice for quality of life in development, whether campaigning against antiseptic modernism in urban building or the mindless creep of suburban tract developments.

"Since a child, I have been a lover of cities and buildings," the native New Yorker once declared. She expressed her love in an accessible and gutsy style, always keeping in mind that the prime consideration in architecture should be how it makes people who use it feel.

When she began writing in the 1950s, the trend in city building veered to a style described as "heroic corporate modernism." Historic preservation was a fringe concept seen as an impediment to progress. Architecture was not part of everyday conversation or political discourse, and it was often taken for granted that the larger forces at work in city and suburban design were all operating for the public good.

Ms. Huxtable played an incalculable role in elevating architecture far more into the mainstream of dialogue and debate. She did this, in part, by refusing to be seduced by the concept of the architect as grand visionary whose work was genius beyond question.

She wrote penetratingly against the mind-set of entitlement that allowed developers, with their riches and Rolodexes, to remake cities and suburbs without a strong voice offering an informed countervailing opinion. She also tried to illuminate the history of a space long before that became fashionable in criticism circles.

Ms. Huxtable did not write for theorists. She was accessible in her tone and confident in her opinions, layering into her columns vivid details of a structure down to its doorknobs.

Her 1970 collection -- "Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?" -- featured one of her most memorable eviscerations of the new building that emerged from the demolition of New York's Penn Station in 1963.

The old structure, replete with marble and granite molded to steel and glass, was meant to evoke the glory and power of the Roman Empire and affix that aura to the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad. In its place was erected a drum-shaped sports arena, Madison Square Garden, with a nondescript glass-and-concrete office building atop it.

Ms. Huxtable lamented that developers would approve a "giant pizza stand" on the Parthenon if they could ram through studies to justify it.

Ms. Huxtable, who opposed what she called "blind mutilation in the name of urban renewal," was credited as one of the driving forces in creating the Landmarks Preservation Commission for New York City in 1965.

The commission played a significant role in preserving designated landmarks, including Radio City Music Hall and hundreds of lesser-known buildings. This became important as federal highway and urban renewal funds were deployed in the 1960s and 1970s to raze historic structures to make way for new development.

Ada Louise Landman was born March 14, 1921, in New York City. Her father was a physician.

She graduated magna cum laude with a fine arts degree from Hunter College, then attended New York University's Institute of Fine Arts before joining the Museum of Modern Art as an assistant curator of the department of architecture and design.

In the early 1950s, she received two Fulbright fellowships to study architecture and design in Italy. The experience led to a speciality in freelance writing on that subject for Art Digest, Progressive Architecture and other publications.

Her feature pieces on Manhattan architecture for the New York Times Magazine won an important admirer, assistant managing editor Clifton Daniel. He created the post of architecture critic with Ms. Huxtable in mind.

Ms. Huxtable, whose books included "The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style" (1984), found more to admire in the Seagram Building, Chase Manhattan Plaza and the Ford Foundation's building.

Arts criticism became a Pulitzer category in 1970, and Ms. Huxtable won the first award. She was frequently consulted by environmental and planning commissions while at the Times, where she remained until 1982 and became a member of the editorial board. She left the Times when she won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, a so-called "genius grant."

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