Architecture criticism in the popular press begins and ends with Ada Louise Huxtable. She and her editors at The New York Times invented the position of permanent architecture critic, in 1963, and no one since has been able to write even close to the standards she set, first as critic for the Times, then later at The Wall Street Journal, where she continues today, at the age of 87.

Huxtable considers herself a pragmatist, eschewing design ideologies. But as On Architecture, a new collection of her essays spanning nearly half a century, makes clear, she does not approach her subject tabula rasa. A lifelong New Yorker who attended local colleges and whose first job was an assistant curatorship at MoMA under Philip Johnson, Huxtable is concerned not with buildings per se, but with their relationship to the urban environment. Huxtable played a central role in turning historic preservation into a mass movement, helping lead the 1963 effort to save Penn Station.

In the mid-1960s she criticized American architecture for failing "completely to deal with the critical problem of controlling the urban explosion through design, of planning the man-made environment for beauty, efficiency, and order. This," she wrote, "is the great architectural challenge of the twentieth century." Her guiding critique has changed little in the subsequent decades.

Ada Louise Huxtable in 1974, four years after winning the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Ada Louise Huxtable in 1974, four years after winning the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Credit: Getty Images

In the introduction Huxtable insists that "my opinions have not really changed," and at least as far as the essays in On Architecture go, she's right. Indeed, the joy of On Architecture is in reading a consistent, persistent mind unpack and evaluate the twists and turns of Modernism, Postmodernism, Deconstructionism, and all the other -isms to pass through her field of vision. While her writing for the Times is important as a journalistic record, the real gems are her longer essays, mostly for The New York Review of Books. "The New Architecture," a massive 1995 piece centered on Alvaro Siza, Christian de Portzamparc, and Frank Gehry, ends with one of the most moving statements on architecture and criticism I have ever read:

"The perennial architectural debate has always been, and will continue to be, about art versus use, vision versus pragmatism, aesthetics versus social responsibility. In the end, these unavoidable conflicts provide architecture's essential and productive tensions; the tragedy is that so little of it rises above the level imposed by compromise, and that this is the only work most of us see and know."

Huxtable is merely the best of a generation of critics and architect-writers who followed the footsteps of New Yorker columnists Lewis Mumford and George Sheppard Chappell, who wrote under the pseudonym "T-Square." Though they often singled out individual buildings for praise or damnation, their main concern was the urban form as a whole. The idea of approaching projects and architects as you would art and artists, when so many more important things needed to be said, would have struck them as mad. Along with the unfairly forgotten Wolf Von Eckardt of the Washington Post, Huxtable picked up their lance with writing that brought (and still brings) wit and urbanity to the issues and major projects of the day.

Nevertheless, her criticism—despite being some of the most aesthetically sophisticated and morally attuned writing to appear in modern American journalism—has long contained the seeds of its genre's decline. In her heyday Huxtable was one of the most popular press critics of any field; a 1968 New Yorker cartoon shows a despondent set of construction workers on site, bemoaning the news that "Ada Louise Huxtable already doesn't like it!" She brought an art historian's sensibility to the practice, and she excelled at interweaving references and insights from painting and sculpture into her writing.

As a result, readers who thumbed through the Times to find her weekly musings soon became as familiar with Alvar Aalto as they were with Andy Warhol—which is great—but in time they began to regard architects in the same way they did artists, albeit with much larger canvases, which is certainly a bad thing. Aesthetics uprooted ethics, and the insistence that architects have a social obligation was forgotten beneath a landslide of luxurious forms.

Has subsequent criticism truly been a fall from grace? In one sense, no: Today there are dozens of great critics, a niche Huxtable made possible. But too many follow the wrong set of Huxtable's footsteps, prioritizing stars over substance, blockbusters over social building blocks. Too few critics today bother with the other, less sexy aspect of Huxtable's legacy: that of engaging with both society and architecture and guiding them both forward, kicking and screaming if necessary, toward better urban forms and healthier cities. There are exceptions—Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune comes to mind—but most critics today would rather watch the bright lights of architecture and design than cast light into the shadows of the built environment.

At times charged with elitism for her anti-Postmodernist stances, Huxtable is anything but. "Everyone," she writes in the introduction to her new book, "deserves, and has a right to, standards of quality, humanity, and yes, even art, because art elevates the experience and pleasure of the places where we live and work." If only more people understood that fact today.

  • Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He has written about architecture for Metropolis, The New Republic, and Slate. He lives in Washington, D.C.
    Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He has written about architecture for Metropolis, The New Republic, and Slate. He lives in Washington, D.C.