Take Five: A Titan of Architectural Criticism has Died, but Architects are Best Prepared to Carry on the Conversation

By Robert Ivy, FAIA
AIA EVP/Chief Executive Officer
Until January, if you asked any architectural writer to name the greatest living critic, the answer would inevitably be Ada Louise Huxtable, Hon. AIA. While there have been other renowned minds thinking and commenting on architecture and the built environment in the 20th century (Lewis Mumford springs to mind), no one came close to Huxtable.Writing as the architecture critic for The New York Times, and later for The Wall Street Journal, she balanced careful reporting with strong opinions, providing readers with the social, economic, and political context, as well as the effect a given project exerted on a neighborhood, street, and city. Her columns addressed the art of architecture, but rarely as a stand-alone topic.

Who can forget her realistic appraisal of the future for New York’s Ground Zero, warning us to temper optimism for that supercharged urban nexus, since, in Gotham, developers ultimately had the final say: “What Ground Zero tells us is that we have lost the faith and the nerve, the knowledge and the leadership, to make it happen now.” Many of us, filled with optimism for a fresh start, sometimes recoiled a notch at her pronouncements, or actively disagreed with her, but one fact was clear: Her opinion mattered.

We treasured her because she spoke the truth as she understood it, even when it hurt. And legions of citizens, eager for an educated perspective on buildings or neighborhoods or the city, shared in their appreciation of this refined voice. In a sense, she acted as a progenitor, arming subsequent generations of writers, such as Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, (who succeeded her at the Times). But even more importantly, her role helped to set a standard in which informed writers act as the moderator of public discourse, helping us to frame the debate, much as other gifted critics for major news outlets do on their own geographic turf–Blair Kamin in Chicago, Chris Hawthorne in Los Angeles, Robert Campbell, FAIA, in Boston, and now Michael Kimmelman at The Times. We are all in her debt.

While Huxtable honed and valued her professional craft, the Internet has unleashed the genie from the bottle. Today, we don't have to wait for the authoritative article to see a project and form initial decisions. In a sense, all of us can carry on the conversation, because the times demand it. And who better to evaluate architecture, and its effects on the world around us, than architects?

In a way, all architects become critics, for good or ill, practicing their faculties first in the design studio on their own projects, then on those of their classmates and colleagues. The looming need for informed discussion transcends the superficial aesthetic aspects of a given building or community project. Think of Huxtable. Ada Louise would enjoin us to collect our facts, set the context, and look at the larger picture before taking aim. Then, and only then, are we prepared to advocate effectively and forcefully for the built environment–taking a balanced, if powerful position that our clients, or fellow citizens, will listen to, recall, and act on.

Some of us have lamented that, “The public doesn’t understand the value of design.” But it doesn't require a singular generational talent like Ada Louise Huxtable to teach people how architects make the communities we live and work in better places. This is a job for architects as well. No one knows the total story better–neither the client nor the public. You know your project’s intentions. If the building is a school, you know how it might enrich a student's learning experience; if it's a hospital, how it might help a patient heal.

We should use op-eds, letters, blogs, and all manner of social media outlets, adding the architect’s voice without waiting for someone else to frame the debate. In one sense, speaking out and speaking up about architecture in your own community becomes a form of advocacy, a positive action you can take to help advance the understanding and appreciation of your own work and of the profession. Then, when our motives and achievements are recognized by third parties, including great critics like Ada Louise Huxtable, the message will resound clearly and powerfully.

Speak up, speak out about architecture. The AIA of the 21st century needs architects (and critics) like you.

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