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Architecture is More Than Just Buildings

Architecture occupies a peculiar place in the life of democratic societies. Most buildings get built because some private concern an individual or a corporate entity commissions it. Because procuring land and constructing buildings is expensive, the private concerns that do so typically enjoy the benefits which include in excess of the democratic credo of one man one vote. Yet architecture or most of it anyway is a public good: what any one person or institution builds others must live with and often for a very long time. This situation surely produces buildings that reliably serve clients’ interests but less reliably serve the public. How to shift the balance of power so that the rest of us get buildings and places that are good for us too.

At least partly through a free and forceful press: that’s what Ada Louise Huxtable the former architecture critic for the figured out. Huxtable, who was (publishing her last article on Foster & Partners’ proposed renovation for the New York Public Library, in December) recounted how she demanded cajoled and insisted that take the built environment seriously by walking into an editor’s office “with a list of all the stories was missing. Well you tell an editor what he’s missing and he pays attention.” that created a new position for Huxtable naming her the paper’s first architecture and giving her a post along side its array of critics of art literature theater music film and dance. She leaving it only to take up an analogous but less relentlessly demanding position at the Wall Street Journal.

Huxtable never let her readers or anyone else who would listen forget that architecture is not like the other arts. Paintings or dance performances you choose to see or not see but architecture envelops us all. Everyone sees and experiences it. Huxtable insisted both that architecture is an art and that it is an art that everybody deserves to enjoy precisely because it constitutes the life of our inhabited places. Recognizing the structural imbalance among moneyed clients designing architects and the voiceless public she did not to criticize first developers then when the times demanded it, developers and misguided public officials and then more recently developers misguided public officials and misguided architects. She was going to call people out for the mediocrities they perpetrated upon New York City and the world.

Upon the demolition of McKim, Mead and White’s majestic neoclassical Pennsylvania Station in New York to make way via the sale of air rights for Penn Plaza a hotel, office, sports and entertainment complex of, at best, execrable banality, Huxtable exploded, “It’s time we stopped talking about our society. We are an impoverished society,” she insisted, because of the buildings and cities that we build. Referring else where to Madison Square Garden and Penn Station she spat that the aesthetic of American was declining from Roman Imperial to “Investment Modern”. Real estate developers were not Huxtable’s friends.

With her articles on Penn Station and other developments—some executed others not—in lower Huxtable helped to catalyze the preservation movement and became its nominal patron saint. But her honored status was immaterial to her some years later preservation had evolved into a risible bastion of conservatism nostalgia and muddle-headed standards she searingly castigated preservationists for having gone too far. Similarly Huxtable recognized early on that Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown along with other post-modernists were launching an important critique of corporate modernism. But she never became an ideological convert rightly condemning the flat brightly colored festoons on Michael Graves’ Portland City Hall and the Chippendale top of Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s AT&T tower in Manhattan as so many decorative tails pinned on unworthy donkeys. More recently Huxtable trenchantly today’s starchitects (and their clients) for an excess of what she dubbed “helicopter architecture”: flamboyant, form-driven, pictorial buildings dropped into host cities with little regard for local culture urban context or environment and often with little regard for a person’s actual experience of them on the ground. 

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