Can There Be a New York, The Beautiful? is the topic of this 1968 broadcast. Irving M. Levine, the host of New York Tomorrow, questions Ada Louise Huxtable about a wide range of subjects from downtown skyscrapers to outer borough housing projects to the relationship between social environment and bricks-and-mortar construction. Huxtable, an architecture critic for The New York Times, gives a lucid overview of the state of urban planning during this fraught time in the city’s history.
Huxtable’s initial response to the program’s ostensible question is, “No, nor should there be.” Beauty is not some preconceived notion relating to manufacturing a simulacrum of the past but rather creating responses that reflect and enhance “the vitality…the tremendous mixture” of New York today. She lauds the new attitude that has come in with the Lindsay administration, pointing out that the Planning Commission can now influence construction and, in some cases, halt the razing of old buildings. In the past, the use of such municipal power was thought to be impossible. As an example, she points to the recent zoning and bonus provisions that have led to more theaters being built on the first floors of the very office towers that had threatened to overrun the Theater District.
On the other hand, there are many “tragedies,” as she succinctly calls them. The constant building of banks, crowding out more useful businesses. The deadly architectural influence of corporate America, which she scathingly refers to as the “great visual illiterate,” and the urgent need for subsidized lower- and middle-class housing so that neighborhoods can be maintained and a sense of community fostered.
Huxtable’s take is not all gloom-and-doom, but what optimism she shows, mostly relating to the young, idealistic generation of designers and planners now entering the field, is tempered by a clear-eyed view of the bottom-line profit motive that drives a city’s growth. Her prescription for moving forward? One must either “develop an extreme cynicism or preserve an extreme naïveté.” One senses from her measured responses and long subsequent career that she was able to accomplish the even more difficult feat of maintaining both these attitudes.
For six decades, Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-2013) gave readers, first of The New York Times, later of The Wall Street Journal, the sense that they had a stake and a say in the architecture of New York City, a business which, in the past, seemed to be transacted literally over their heads. Her indictment of soulless office towers and championing of supposedly “dated” gems from the past opened up this hitherto elitist domain to the eyes of ordinary citizens. As the New York Times recounted in its obituary:
At a time when architects were still in thrall to blank-slate urban renewal, Ms. Huxtable championed preservation — not because old buildings were quaint, or even necessarily historical landmarks, but because they contributed vitally to the cityscape. She was appalled at how profit dictated planning and led developers to squeeze the most floor area onto the least amount of land with the fewest public amenities.
An essential element in this was Huxtable’s stylistic approach, which managed to combine scholarship, passion, and a journalistic flair for engagement. Architecture does not appear at first glance to be a “sexy” beat for a reporter, but she made it one, and in doing so acquired an outsized influence both in the popular media and in city government. As Alexandra Lange noted in The Nation:
Big mouth? Yes, if volume is measured in circulation. By making the case for architecture criticism as an essential beat for a metropolitan newspaper, by turning buildings into news and serving on the Times’s editorial board, Huxtable enjoyed a career that epitomized the argument she would repeatedly make in print: architecture is “the art we cannot afford to ignore.” Her irreverent tone, her lean, pointed prose and her willingness to follow the story wherever it led her—to politics and money, to urban history and feats of engineering—made her a critic admired by colleagues who agreed about little else. She approached buildings as a journalist, adapting her style and method to the occasion, and without ever losing sight of her core constituency: the public, who would use the urban fabric, tattered or rehabilitated, long after she was gone.
Like most critics, Huxtable is perhaps best-remembered for her negative reviews. (“Doctors’ offices are where Danish modern went to die.”) Her thundering condemnation of the destruction of Penn Station is a classic and is considered by many to have given birth to the preservation movement. (“We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”) But she was also deeply appreciative of what architecture could provide. Of the CBS Building, 51 West 52nd Street, by Eero Saarinen, she wrote,
“It is not, like so much of today’s large-scale construction, a handy commercial package, a shiny wraparound envelope, a packing case, a box of cards, a trick with mirrors. It does not look like a cigar lighter, a vending machine, a nutmeg grater. It is a building, in the true, classic sense: a complete design in which technology, function and aesthetics are conceived and executed integrally for its purpose.”
Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.
WNYC archives id: 150908Municipal archives id: T5941 T5942