September 1, 2007
Ada Louise Huxtable
Ada Louise Huxtable answers a few questions on criticism, inspiration, and process—using her thumbs.
Job description: Architectural historian and critic
Current projects: I’m working on a couple of articles for the Wall Street Journal and a book for Yale University Press, for their American Icons Series, on the ranch house.
First step on a project: I have an initial concept in my mind, I have curiosity, I have questions, I have enthusiasms, but I go straight to the research.
Last step on a project: Final vetting of the text. I’m very fussy about that. I’m a self-editor.
How do you break a creative block? I eat. I can eat an entire box of crackers before I sit down at the computer.
Why do you do what you do? From quite an early age—because I’m a New Yorker and love the city and always walked around and loved old buildings—I’d see the changes, and sometimes you’d lose good for bad. I felt that people didn’t know enough about their architecture, about what they were entitled to in the quality of places where they lived and worked. And eventually that led to the New York Times creating the job of architecture critic for me.
Education: I went to New York public schools and Hunter College, then the Institute of Fine Arts of NYU, where I studied art history and took every architectural history course they gave, from ancient Greece and Rome up to the closest they came to the present—which wasn’t very close.
Mentor: We didn’t even know the word then. I discovered and admired certain writers and teachers, but I was finding my own way.
First act as “design czar”: I’d say, God forbid there should be a design czar in the first place.
Dream team: A very fine researcher to help me
Office chair: No, the Aeron doesn’t fit. I hate it. I’m short, I’m small. All office chairs are made for bigger people. I have a very comfortable task chair that I picked out of a catalog at Staples. It twirls up and down.
Office sound track: I am not of the multitasking generation. I can’t even read in airports.
Favorite tchotchke: I have a piece of plasterwork from a Louis Sullivan building that Dick Nickel sent me years ago; he, of course, died in the wreckage of one of those buildings when it was being demolished. I have a tile that Alvar Aalto signed for me, a piece of Penn Station, and a piece of Manhattan schist.
Best place to think: I have no idea. I’m thinking constantly!
Current read: The Levittowners, by Herbert Gans, published in 1967
Something old: I like old buildings that are intriguing and quite wonderful but don’t make the history books. What you discover is there’s a little group of people that have been admiring them quietly by themselves all along.
Favorite space: There are many. Frankly, I’m so tired of having architects hold up this or that great space as their inspiration. It gets to be a bore.
Guilty pleasure: My own personal life—I always feel guilty when I’m enjoying it.
Underrated: You couldn’t begin to list what’s underrated because today what’s rated at all is media-driven and celebrity-conscious. But there’s a lot under that line that’s awfully good.
Overrated: Most celebrity architecture is overrated now. It doesn’t mean the architects are untalented, but it does mean that they’re overrated for the wrong reasons.
Learned the hard way: Everything I know I’ve learned the hard way. It was pioneer work.
Command-Z (undo): Oh, probably, but I can’t think of it.
Dream job: Mine.