Tall Stories

The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style

by Ada Louise Huxtable
Pantheon, 127 pp., $21.95

Ada Louise Huxtable: An Annotated Bibliography

by Lawrence Wodehouse
Garland, 276 pp., $36.00

…let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name….

—Genesis 11:4

When Ada Louise Huxtable retired from The New York Times in 1982, she concluded nearly two decades as America’s only architecture critic with a truly national constituency among the lay public. Her greatest predecessor was Lewis Mumford, who ceased writing the column “The Sky Line” in The New Yorker in 1963, the same year Mrs. Huxtable took up her Times position. But that chronological elision was not quite so neat as it might seem, for Mrs. Huxtable’s contribution has been rather different from Mumford’s. She has possessed neither his penetrating social insight and broad cultural vision nor his command of several disciplines, which have elevated his criticism far above the descriptive and anecdotal approaches of most of their colleagues. If Mumford can be seen as a latter-day avatar of John Ruskin and William Morris, it is no slight to say that Mrs. Huxtable has been the finest architectural journalist of her generation.

Yet both Mumford and Mrs. Huxtable are alike in being confirmed modernists. They share the same belief in orthodox modernism’s architectonic clarity, structural integrity, compositional simplicity, “honest” use of materials, and above all a spiritual seriousness that excludes irony, humor, contradiction, or arbitrary historical recall. For all their devotion to that progressive architectural ideal, however, neither has been blind to its failures.

As early as 1928, Mumford foresaw and warned against the sterility into which the reductive aesthetic of modernism could easily descend, and encouraged “the search for something more”: the ornament, pattern, and texture that largely disappeared with the triumph of the International Style after World War II. Nevertheless, Mumford assiduously promoted the acceptance of modern architecture in this country, praising not only such highly decorated New York buildings as Two Park Avenue by Ely Jacques Kahn (1927) and Rockefeller Center (1931–1940), but also such minimalist International Style icons as the Forty-third Street branch of the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company (1954) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (1954–1958).

Mrs. Huxtable was also an early and vocal critic of the incipient blandness of the high-rise construction that profoundly altered the face of the American city from the 1950s onward. But she has always retained her essential belief in modernism, and has lamented its decline and discrediting. It is a rare thing for a critic to be able to transcend the values and attitudes that informed his or her initial experience of an art form, and it is especially difficult for an architecture critic in that the medium is inextricably tied to social issues as well as stylistic ones.

Mumford, during the mid-Sixties, was faced with an emergent postmodernism that diverged diametrically from his conception of architecture as above all a vehicle for social improvement. For him, it was perfectly acceptable that the design of such reformist housing developments as Clarence Stein, Henry Wright, and …

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Letters

Mrs. Huxtable’s Words December 19, 1985