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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 Frederick Ackerman’s Sunnyside Gardens in Queens (1924–1928) and Stein and Wright’s Radburn, New Jersey (1928–1929) be ordinary—recessive in their plain redbrick exteriors and subordinate to larger principles of town planning. But it was not, in Mumford’s view, acceptable for Robert Venturi’s social-welfare Guild House in Philadelphia (1960–1963) to be “ugly” as well as “ordinary” (to use two of Venturi’s favorite terms of approval) as a deliberate tactic of aesthetic iconoclasm. Confronted by such different ground rules for architectural expression, Mumford simply dropped the subject, devoting the following twenty years to the autobiographical works that have become his primary preoccupation.

Mrs. Huxtable, on the other hand, was forced by the demands of daily newspaper journalism to respond to the changing forms of contemporary architecture even though she was not in sympathy with them. From the beginning of her Times career, Mrs. Huxtable was always at her best when writing on urban planning, zoning, and historic preservation—issues of public policy in which her somewhat puritanical temperament could be displayed to advantage. If she was rarely a threat to the real-estate establishment (an unlikely possibility given the civic boosterism that the Times has long endorsed in support of New York’s construction and development interests), neither has she been accommodating. Mrs. Huxtable has a sharply defined and honorably held set of principles and has felt no compunction about exercising them vigorously.

From her impassioned defense of the old Pennsylvania Station in 1963 (years before Beaux Arts classicism became a fashionable taste once again), to her long crusade to preserve the Villard Houses (which ended in Pyrrhic victory with the erection of the Helmsley Palace Hotel behind them), to her recent refusal of an endowed professorship at the Columbia School of Architecture given by the Milstein family (the developers who gutted the Biltmore Hotel in defiance of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission), she has indeed waged (in her own words) “many battles with developers dedicated to the lowest formula of commercial design.”

She has been less at ease (again like Mumford) with purely aesthetic matters, and as American architecture in the Seventies began to take a dramatic turn toward the self-consciously artful, she became increasingly recalcitrant. The dead end that modernism had reached made a younger generation of architects—most importantly Robert Venturi and Charles Moore—seek new means of expression. These included a return to historical sources, both vernacular (Moore’s Sea Ranch in California, 1964–1965) and classical (Venturi’s Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, 1962, and Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, 1975–1978); a revived interest in ornament, pattern, and color (Venturi’s Institute of Scientific Information, Philadelphia, 1977–1979); a greater respect for existing surroundings, especially in cities (Venturi’s Franklin Court, Philadelphia, 1972–1976); and an attitude that Venturi and Moore—convincing polemicists as well as vanguard designers—saw as “inclusive” as opposed to the “exclusive” philosophy of orthodox modernism.

Soon there were those who were claiming that modernism (its technical advances aside) had been little more than an aberrant detour in the history of architecture, rather than, as early modernists such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier believed it to be, the most original departure since the Gothic. Postmodernism, as proponents of the new style such as Michael Graves and Charles Jencks called it, would lead, they said, to the return to the true principles of architecture as they have existed since ancient Greece and Rome.

But the modern nostalgia for the lost classical ideal, which has inspired some of this century’s most affecting art, music, and literature, has been considerably more difficult to convey convincingly in architecture. The efforts of the postmodernists thus far indicate that the break with the past in building design made by Le Corbusier and the architects of the Bauhaus has been much deeper and more difficult to mend than they at first thought.

Ada Louise Huxtable’s constitutional distaste for both the philosophy and products of postmodernism has led her to some dubious counterproposals, among them her tireless advancement during her last years at the Times of the work of I.M. Pei, whose tepid (if certifiably tasteful) exercises in institutional image making provided a very poor argument for the case that there was life still left in late modernism. But her recent release from the exigencies of the Times raised the hope that Mrs. Huxtable would be able to undertake a project that could take full advantage of her vast experience. More than any other critic in her lifetime, Ada Louise Huxtable has been able to observe the architectural process in all its complexity from beginning to end. She has a peerless ability to explain precisely why we get the buildings we do because of economics, politics, and zoning, and makes those interconnected forces comprehensible to professionals as much as to the public. In light of that record, The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style comes as a disappointment.

By taking the title of her book from Louis Sullivan’s 1896 essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” Mrs. Huxtable makes it clear that her analysis will be primarily a stylistic one. Time and again in this text she reminds us that architectural style is the physical embodiment of the values of those who produce it: “Style is creative change in response to cultural expresses the conditions of a particular society and time.” But just how that occurs is never fully explained.

Actually, the skyscraper style first advocated by Louis Sullivan—a tower of strongly vertical character with clear definitions among base, shaft, and crown—has remained remarkably consistent throughout the history of this building type. Even though Sullivan’s extraordinarily successful experiments in devising new and highly inventive modes of “organic” ornamentation were superseded by a new generation of architects that favored the use of historically inspired motifs, the tripartite organizational system survived intact. Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in Buffalo (1894–1895) and Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building in New York (1911–1913) conform to Sullivan’s three-part formula as well as to his definition of the skyscraper as “a proud and soaring thing,” despite the art nouveau details of the former and the Gothic of the latter.

Even many International Style skyscrapers, such as the Seagram Building, had clearly expressed beginnings, middles, and ends, though the flache Dach (flat roof) favored by the modernists tended to give those buildings a uniformity unknown during the golden age of skyscraper design from 1910 to 1930, when no one could possibly confuse the Singer Building with the Woolworth Building, or the Chrysler Building with the Empire State.

It might be more accurate to describe the stylistic variety of this early period as a shopping around for, rather than the search for, a skyscraper style. The end of the spree or quest (depending on one’s point of view) came with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. The costly handcraft typical of the tall building since its emergence a half-century before suddenly became the element that could be discarded as too costly. The rise of a new, unornamented modernism in Europe—which Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock termed the International Style—was likewise first inspired by economic change, but the philosophical and social ideas that lay behind that revolutionary style promoted an absence of ornament and simplified massing as a means of creating desperately needed housing.

American developers quickly caught on that a tall building could be much more cheaply erected without a small army of artisans in addition to essential construction workers. In the boom years after World War II, applied ornament was largely dispensed with, supplanted by emphasis on what Mrs. Huxtable correctly cites as “that critical quality of detail, material, and execution on which the modern style depends.” But even that went by the boards before long; for every building comparable in quality to the Seagram Building or Lever House there rose dozens of corrupt copies. The style, however, was not so much lost as deliberately discounted to the most common denominator.

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