In Architecture, Anyone?, Ada Louise Huxtable has drawn together some sixty articles from the last five years of her tenure as chief architecture critic for The New York Times. While Mrs. Huxtable has taken the opportunity to “expand, clarify, and update” the articles—adding introductory or concluding notes, registering the outcome of particular controversies and movements—she has endeavored to preserve her original critical judgments intact. Dated from the beginning of 1977 through the end of 1981, the articles in Architecture, Anyone? may thus be read in part as a contemporary record of one critic’s response to the bewildering urban architectural scene that witnessed the eclipse of modernism, the flowering of postmodernism and the preservation movement, and a spasm of urban building and over-building that only now shows signs of abating.

The subject matter of such a critical miscellany is dictated to a large extent by the particulars of the critic’s architectural milieu, the buildings and projects that captured the public’s attention at a given moment, the exhibitions and publications that provided apt occasions for a review. Thus the book cannot hope to provide a comprehensive overview of the architectural life of its times. All the same, Mrs. Huxtable has managed to touch upon most of the major controversies, and to sketch most of the main characters, in the drama of contemporary architecture. Her book includes articles on individual figures from Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Wallace Harrison, and the town planner Clarence Stein to contemporary practitioners like Aldo Rossi, Leon Krier, James Stirling, John Hejduk, Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, and Richard Meier. She reviews a number of individual buildings and monuments, notably some recent museum buildings, including I. M. Pei’s new wing for The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Cesar Pelli’s major renovation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The book also provides a handful of historical reflections on such topics as the legacy of Viollet-le-Duc, the firm of McKim, Mead and White, and the all-but-forgotten Russian Constructivist architect Ivan Leonidov. Since city planning is among Mrs. Huxtable’s great passions, one is not surprised to discover that Architecture, Anyone? features some dozen pieces on the arrangements—occasionally wise, often foolish—that planners, architects, developers, and politicians have made to dispose of the cities and neighborhoods under their authority. Most of the articles in this section deal with New York issues—the evolution of its zoning practices, the protracted and often acrimonious disputations over the fate of Grand Central Terminal, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Westway, Battery Park City, and the South Bronx—but there are also pieces on developments in Boston, London, Dublin, Paris, and West Berlin. The volume concludes with several more or less occasional pieces on sundry topics, from landscape architecture and the reception of modern American architecture abroad to architectural “clutter” and the design of contemporary waiting rooms.

As bespeaks their provenance, most of the articles in Architecture, Anyone? are brief, twelve-hundred- to fifteen-hundred-word productions written in response to specific architectural events; the few longer entries—a piece on architectural drawings, for example, near the end of the volume—are stitched together from multiple installments of these shorter reflections. Such brevity naturally imposes rather severe limits on the depth with which a given topic can be pursued. But Mrs. Huxtable has effectively perfected the form. She is able to illuminate the particulars of her subject in a page or so and then proceed to place it neatly in the context of the larger urban or aesthetic issues it raises. It is a testimony to her mastery—and also to her skill in selecting and arranging the contents of the present volume—that one seldom feels that one is simply watching a series of critical snapshots, as it were. Although the volume does not present a continuous narrative, the individual pieces bear witness to a coherent set of assumptions about the tasks of contemporary architecture and architectural criticism.

One recurrent theme in Architecture, Anyone? is the fate of modernist architecture. Indeed, Mrs. Huxtable is probably at her best when defending modernist classics that have been unfairly maligned, or when criticizing the flights of historicizing pretense that typify most exercises in postmodernism, though one might well feel that she is at times too timid or generous in her characterizations of her opponents. For example, does she really believe that Peter Eisenman’s Oppositions was an “excellent” magazine? Nothing else she writes about the sensibility it represented suggests she does. Does she really consider Leon Krier’s “combination of art and nostalgia” “enviable”? Her subsequent criticisms suggest otherwise. Yet by and large Architecture, Anyone? reveals Mrs. Huxtable as an outspoken and discerning critic who is not afraid of taking unpopular stands. Perhaps her chief critical asset is a thorough grounding in nineteenth- and twentieth-century architectural history, a grounding that gave her 1983 monograph, The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered, an authority rare in the pages of contemporary architectural criticism. Mrs. Huxtable’s habit of patient scholarship helps her both to appreciate genuine innovation and historical continuity where it occurs and to recognize the bogus, fraudulent, and superficial imitations of these virtues.

A superb example of the former is her 1981 essay “Reappraisal at Pessac,” in which she describes her visit to the town near Bordeaux to see Le Corbusier’s notorious 1926 housing project, Quartiers Modernes Fruges. The project has been consistently attacked since 1929 when the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote that it was a “serious disappointment.” As Mrs. Huxtable notes, this judgment has been amplified over the years, until Pessac came to embody everything that was supposedly wrong with the modern movement: its abstractness, its unlivable purity and uniformity, its “elitest” imposition of architectural ideas on unwilling occupants. That many inhabitants of the project should go so far as to remodel their houses, tearing down walls, building out into gardens, was taken as the ultimate confirmation of Pessac’s failure. It takes considerable critical independence to dissent from such inherited opinion, and Mrs. Huxtable does it with grace and conviction.

And so I walked down the Avenue Fruges and Rue Le Corbusier in Pessac on a late January day expecting the shock of the old, or the future that died, but the script didn’t fit . . . .

The scale and relationship of the houses to one another and to the gardens are excellent; the shapes and proportions of the buildings are still strong and good. There is a feeling of a cohesive whole. Even with the loss of key elements of the “pure” Corbusian style—the precise repetition of open and closed geometries, the visual sense of a thin membrane, the painterly abstraction of the original colored facades— Pessac retains an impressive and recognizable integrity. This is a very pleasant place to be. And the houses are clearly survivors.

It is also clear that Pessac is a survivor precisely because of its architecture. Its strong identity absorbs almost anything time and residents can inflict. . . . Pessac continues to give something to the eye and the spirit that only buildings shaped and informed by a superior and caring eye and spirit can. This still holds true, with all the changes made by the occupants over the years.

And on the whole question of the inhabitants making changes to the houses, Mrs. Huxtable is surely right when she writes that the householder does not exist “who has not revised, revamped, expanded, or added a little class or space to his home in dream or actuality.” Quoting one of the project’s few earlier champions, she even suggests that “the modifications carried out by the occupants constitute a positive and not a negative consequence of Le Corbusier’s original conception. Pessac not only allowed the occupants sufficient latitude to satisfy their needs, by so doing it also helped them to realize what those needs were.”

The more critical side of Architecture, Anyone? shows itself most trenchantly in those essays where Mrs. Huxtable confronts the dubious historicizing efforts of postmodernism. In “The Past as Future,” for example, she discusses the widespread attempt to revive classical architectural forms in what is still an essentially modernist environment. If in the Fifties and Sixties many buildings were insensitively “modernized” by the addition of a stock “modernist” facade—“Kawneered and Johns-Manvilled to extinction,” as she puts it—now modern buildings are “restored” or “traditionalized” by the addition of an equally contrived bit of architectural ornamentation. In this context she cites a remodeled supermarket in Manchester, Connecticut, where we find a standard-issue, glass-fronted building “traditionalized” by a new facade replete with pedimented entrance, arched windows, and stone quoins. “Same box, different facade,” Mrs. Huxtable writes, summing up the basic postmodernist formula. “Instead of modernizing, we have classicizing. At best, the result, and the response, is superficial and ambivalent.”

“Same box, different facade,” Mrs. Huxtable writes, summing up the basic postmodernist formula.

Of course, we tend to get used to the buildings, even the bad buildings, we live with. One service performed by Architecture, Anyone? is to recall past indignities and remind us of various instances of architectural cynicism and urban exploitation. For example, in one of the book’s best essays, “Wishful Thinking on Fifth Avenue,” Mrs. Huxtable describes—anatomizes, really—two buildings on Fifth Avenue: Ulrich Franzen’s apartment house at the corner of Sixty-first Street, and Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s apartment house at 1001 Fifth Avenue, between Eighty-first and Eighty-second streets across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Built in the Seventies, both are modern buildings that pretend to harmonize with their expensive Beaux Arts context by including various stylized “references” to the surrounding architecture. Thus Mr. Franzen’s building—on the site of the old Dodge Mansion—boasts a five-story “false front” stone facade replete with fake quoins and a “balustrade” of holes, while the Johnson and Burgee building bristles with pseudo-classical moldings and a roof that is “mansard” in front and bare behind. It is rather like fitting a Volkswagen with an imitation Rolls Royce grill. Both buildings illustrate what Mrs. Huxtable describes as the Architectural Pathetic Fallacy. “This particular fallacy,” she writes,

operates on the principle that if you are going to put an out-of-scale, out-of-context, discordant structure into a setting where it will be damaging or destructive, you can make it less so by “recalling,” or “extracting” the essence or details of the surrounding older architecture. Borrowing from the existing for the new is supposed to make the two incompatible structures compatible.

In actual practice, this is almost always hogwash, with results ranging from well-intentioned bungling to pious hypocrisy . . . . One can point to the compromise and say that two buildings “go together” because they share a common cornice line, or related material or color. One is supposed to admire the way the addition “picks up” themes or motifs from its neighbors, no matter how it violates them in its totality. This kind of design usually gets high marks from those protecting the integrity of a landmark or the scale and character of a neighborhood. But answers meant to satisfy all camps seldom do, and compromise in architecture can be compared to the work of the committee assigned to design a horse that comes up with a camel.

Not all of the essays in Architecture, Anyone?, achieve this degree of critical perspicacity. Nor, indeed, do they all concern themselves with such central questions of architectural style. Some of the more occasional pieces—on “The Death of the Five-and-Ten,” “Conquering Clutter,” or “The Decorative Urge”—descend to a kind of drawing-room coziness that can be quite charming but that lacks the incisiveness and critical penetration of the book’s best essays. Then again, many of the essays show Mrs. Huxtable as the embattled advocate of urban preservation and critic of untethered real-estate development. There is something almost heroic about many of these pieces, dramatizing as they do the battle of individuals and neighborhoods against the rude imperatives of big business. But one senses at times that the depressing spectacle of New York real-estate development has all but monopolized Mrs. Huxtable’s best energies. Not that most of us are likely to disagree with her position on individual controversies. Preserving the integrity of East Sixty-second Street, preventing St. Bartholomew’s from ruining one of the last patches of open space on Park Avenue, saving Grand Central Terminal from the wrecker’s ball: these are worthy causes all. Yet one cannot but feel that her increasing attention to these preservationist controversies has distracted her from her role, her work, as a critic.

The nature of this distraction—or divided allegiance—is perhaps best illustrated in the introduction that Mrs. Huxtable provides for Architecture, Anyone? Taking issue with the utopianism that has been an ingredient of so much of our century’s most ambitious architecture, she writes that “[h]istory consists of holding actions”—meaning that nothing essential changes, that the constituent elements, motivations, and ends of architecture, as of life, are constant. But she speaks on the next page of the “radical change in the way people see and respond to their surroundings” that the last decades have wrought, a change that she goes on to describe as a “revolution.” There is, shall we say, a tension between the idea of history as a “holding pattern” and the adduced “revolution": one points to a kind of traditionalism, the other tokens a commitment to the modernist project that no “holding pattern” can accommodate. It is not clear that Architecture, Anyone? ever resolves this tension, though it is the book’s great virtue to remind us that such problems are still worth addressing. Ada Louise Huxtable stopped writing criticism regularly in 1982; the best parts of Architecture, Anyone? demonstrate that she has had no successor.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 7, on page 70
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