PRINT February 1977


Ada Louise Huxtable’s “Kicked a Building Lately?”

OBVIOUSLY, IT ALL WORKS ON paper, and is all balled up in reality––perhaps the definitive comment on our times. Nothing is finished, nothing is solved. But then nothing ever is. History, after all, is a continuing state of flux. And Utopia is a recurring nightmare.

I prefer the nightmare of reality.

Ada Louise Huxtable writes these short, seductive sentences; her essays are built from them (this book is a collection of pieces from 1971 to 1976 written for the New York Times, where she is architectural critic). One piece begins: “See the 116-year-old house. See it being knocked down. See the hamburger stand in its place. Pow. America, of thee I sing; sweet land of Burger King.” In that see-Spot-run kind of kindergarten rhythm are memories; a young sense of the world as both simply comprehensible and important (once), then smashed against today: against the death of that memory and the reversal of values in Pop banality, accompanied by the desperate thoughts we force on ourselves that it must be O.K. anyway. This is progress, this is America. It is all in a stanza, this accurate poignancy, and it happens all the time in her writing. Or the memorability of a phrase comes out of the brief fullness of its single idea: “The chairs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh are spectral. They are presences. They upstage people. They have more strength and identity than anyone else in a room.” Such stanzas are about reality; they capture the immediate sensuous impact of a scene, a form, an event.

I would like to continue using the assessment she makes herself that she prefers reality, because she doesn’t analyze theory at all. She seems to mistrust theories (she resents them) and prefers the chaos and firmness of the daily real world, which she distinguishes better than any architectural critic now writing.

It was her watch over realities that allowed her to see the necessity of architectural preservation before anyone else (though Jane Jacobs was there, too). Not in any “quick shot” way, but in essay after essay over 15 years, Ms. Huxtable identified what was valuable in our cities and what was being lost, while in theory the demolition was all being done constructively. Urban renewal was fine in the late 1950s and early 1960s, both economically and as a realization of architectural ideals. It had something to do with bringing visions to final completion (the visions of Le Corbusier and many other modern architects): utopia realized, through good business and bureaucracy. But Ms. Huxtable always saw urban renewal not through the abstractions of progress and in booster positives, but in particular negatives—as the one-by-one destruction of historic architecture and the cities’ working urban context, historic or not, in favor of parking lots and boxes.

She was angry, and her anger worked because she touched real feelings. People from inner city neighborhoods or from small towns next to Metropolis were angry and helpless about this destruction in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were usually beaten: that is moved out, relocated or ignored. But anger built and the time came when they could not be ignored. A surprised Boston Redevelopment Authority during Ed Logue’s tenure couldn’t see why people were rioting to keep their homes, stay in their neighborhood. Didn’t they understand? There were individuals who stopped bulldozers in other ways in small towns all over the country. These were direct confrontations, based in visceral immediate refusals. And it needs to be emphasized more and more that this is the base—the founding energy—out of which today’s preservation movement has grown.

Today, as Ms. Huxtable says, it isn’t just a movement, it’s a mild stampede. It is now fashionable to work at preservation in practice and to teach it in theory, one sign of a shift in architectural ideology. This preservation is at once tamer and more diverse than during its initial phase. Ms. Huxtable describes its tone, when she refers to “the zeal of preservationists, based largely on sentiment and history. . . ”

But it is important to recognize that her advocacy of preservation has been based in neither of these two realms. It is anger over destruction of the best of the present that we find in her writing, not nostalgia for the past. Nor do we find arguments about history as a buttress to her position. Her zeal has been based in objections to the constructional, economic and political present, in other words to the rip-offs in reality. The objections are the same as an observer on the street feels, but can’t articulate.

She brings the same street sense to her criticism of new buildings. But here I want to examine ideas and to question her use of some that are current. Ms. Huxtable, of course, must use ideas: no critic can do without them. For instance, at one point she says this about Edward Durell Stone’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.: “In the resulting pastiche of decorative adaptations there is nothing to elevate, ennoble, enlighten, or enlarge the esthetic experience or sensibilities of the user in the way that great buildings have always expanded and enriched the spatial and sensuous awareness of man.” There is rather a tumble of words here and two simple ideas—buildings should ennoble their users; great buildings have always enriched mankind. Her language is marshaled in an attempt to scourge a building that only pretends to do these things. These are notions more or less universally held, idealizations about what constitutes “goodness” in architecture generally and against which this building can be tested. I don’t like the building either and I don’t even really disagree with these notions—great building should ennoble: sure, why not? what else?—but I think they are too general and unspecified to do the job, and the embellishing rhetoric can’t help.

Or again on the Kennedy Center, and to lambast the saccharine-sweet, pudding-soft pomposity that oozes from it, she says: “The best architecture not only reveals structure and function with direct, creative clarity, it is also a powerful, un-adulterated expression of its time. It cannot be less.” The Kennedy Center certainly is less than such as achievement, but that is not my point. Rather, it is the fusing of two historic principles—good architecture reveals its structure and function; good architecture is a powerful expression of its time—that I question. These ideological rocks of the early modern movement are still rolling around in our heads, unexamined. I don’t think they can be linked today. There are contradictions between the one and the other, and reasons why this is so.

If they invoke romantic uniformities, clarity of structure and function work to debase our times and suggest an Orwellian nightmare. And the artistic suggestion of utopia that is imminent in these two stylistic expressions taken together (if they are possible together) is unbelievable. Ms. Huxtable knows this (read again the quotation by her that begins this review). The problem is a total disjuncture between hope and actual practice.

A few architects are struggling with this obvious obstacle, and with the formal crisis it implies. Many other people are examining the roots of the two ideological notions Ms. Huxtable raises. There aren’t many answers. But it is understood that clarity of structure and function is a metaphor signaling a believed condition of culture. That is why the early modern architects invented such forms, and talked incessantly about, the zeitgeist (the spirit of the times) and the need to express it in buildings. They wished to epitomize artistically some central unity of the 20th-century world, a unity largely undiscovered but revealable. There was no more unity to culture and societies in the early 20th century than today, so why did they believe it? I think they did so out of new and profound moral forces—the dreams and ideas of liberation. The scientific spirit would offer them the means to realize these forces. Science was full of its own revelation of the structure and function of everything, its own progress (of a particular kind), its neutrality and good intentions.

If there exists in a few new buildings today some recognizable vision of our time, that vision is poignant, tentative, fragmented into contradictions and making fun of itself. Or the opposite: it is stretched and slick, some acute-angled geometric exercise dismissing human scale, revealing nothing of its structure or functions, an abstract shimmering thing sealed from all memories. More and more, it matters which side you are on.

But I am on the side of Ms. Huxtable: confront the nightmare of reality (and its pleasures, too!). Ideas are good for that: the confrontation is impossible without them. Theories are passed down to us which no longer fit what we feel and know, but which are used, nevertheless, and have a life of their own. A parasitic life. But she is under no obligation to criticize theory in the pages of the New York Times; rather, she is correct to insist that more than ever, it is necessary to write of basic things.

Robert Jensen teaches architectural history at New York Institute of Technology.


Ada Louise Huxtable, Kicked a Building Lately?, New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Company, 1976.