by Rick Bell FAIA Executive Director AIA New York
Tributes to Ada Louise Huxtable, Hon. AIA, have been written by those who knew her far better than I, and by those – critics and practitioners – who know best how to express their individual and our collective sense of loss. That she created a way of looking at architecture, preservation, and urbanism is clear. And we know she got people to think hard about our cities, our structures, and our design mistakes. Her words struck home, and hit hard those most needing corrective action.
She castigated my old firm for errors large and small, including some work carelessly presented in a celebratory exhibition. Even the font on our drawings was deemed illegible. But she was right, as she was on the major issues of the day, including what needed to be done on the most important projects in our city from the Bronx to the Battery.
The first piece of hers I read, in the New York Times, was about the Villard Houses. It appeared in February of 1971 when I had just started to study architecture. The article criticized the Archdiocese of New York and the RCA Corporation for putting at risk the historic interiors of the five connected McKim Mead & White houses commissioned by Henry Villard. I was prompted by her diatribe to talk my way into the houses where I saw the dropped ceilings and general decrepitude of the poorly maintained spaces. Later, after a restoration, some of those rooms became the home of the AIA New York Chapter, along with the Municipal Art Society, Architectural League, and Parks Council. The preservation of what became the Urban Center frontispiece to the Helmsley Palace could not have happened but for her concern – though the outcome was not exactly what she called for. I can’t say that I became an architect because of that article but it, and others like it, defined for us all the purpose and power of the design professions.
The AIA New York Chapter honored Ada Louise Huxtable with the Stephen A. Kliment Oculus Award in June of 2009, when she was already limiting her forays out for such accolades. She attended the Architectural League dinner to receive the President’s Medal in February of 2008, and exchanged jibes with the best and brightest of the architectural community gathered in her honor. She looked frail, but her eyes were bright and her tongue unfettered.
We all read everything she wrote, even when there was little time to read anything else. I particularly remember the articles from the early ‘70s, just after she won the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. The accompanying images were usually flagged with a photo credit for her husband, the industrial designer Garth Huxtable. I wrote to Mr. Huxtable back then asking if he might want to come to my college to talk with architecture students about how to record buildings. His reply was simple and direct. “No,” he wrote, “I just go along with my wife to carry her bags – it is she who is looking at the buildings.” We’re still here, carrying the remembrance of just how well she did so.