The Huxtable joke’s on us

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Hudson County Courthouse, in Jersey City, N.J. (Jersey Digs)

It may sound like an April Fool’s joke, but I recently started to read Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard? Turns out the joke’s on us. The book’s author, the late Ada Louise Huxtable, was, as most readers of this blog are probably aware, the über-influential architecture critic for 19 years at the New York Times. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s preface encouraged me to hope that Huxtable perhaps was not as bad as I’d long thought. He wrote:

Twentieth century America has seen a steady and persistent decline in the visual and emotional power of its public buildings, and this has been accompanied by a not less persistent decline in the authority of the public order. This many of us know, but only Huxtable could capture the process in the precise moment of transmutation: At the moment the judges left the marble colonnaded chambers of the turn-of-the-century Hudson County Courthouse for new, functional, efficient modern headquarters next door. Right-thinking Americans will have seen this as a long-overdue disengagement with a corrupt and archaic past for a hopeful and enlightened future. Not Huxtable: She alone reports how much has been lost and what little has been gained.

Oh? That’s really not quite what I would have expected from Huxtable. So I turned to her 1966 column “Hudson County Courthouse: What Ever Happened to the Majesty of the Law?”

No one wants a circa 1910, solid Maine granite building with bronze lanterns and crestings and a four-story interior rotunda of pearl-gray marble, opening through all floors to a central dome, embellished by murals and surrounded by polished Italian green marble Ionic columns.

Of course not! Who would want one of those? The mayor of Jersey City refused to buy the building from the county for one dollar, saying he “had no need for a ceremonial city hall.” But Huxtable condemns the utilitarian new Hudson County Courthouse, mostly by comparing its modernist tediums with the graces of the old building. “So much for the dignity of the insti- tutions of man,” she intones. Is this the real Ada Louise Huxtable?

No. It’s too good to be true. The real Huxtable is the one who describes the new Lincoln Center as having, with its “fussy” colonnades, “defaulted as contemporary architecture and design.” After her fusillade, I almost wanted to like the place myself. The real Ada Louise is the one who, in “Sometimes We Do It Right,” describes plopping a tower of “satin-smooth aluminum and glass” – 140 Broadway, with its Noguchi cube sculpture – into a classical setting. This blotch is how to “do it right”? Its “skyscraper wall reduced to gossamer minimums of shining, thin material hung on a frame of extra- ordinary strength through superb contemporary technology”? This created “one of the most magnificent examples of twentieth-century urbanism anywhere in the world”?

Alas, that is the Huxtable with whom we are familiar. But what about the last column in the book, “Old Town Blues,” about tiny St. Paul de Vence, in France? I thought she must be pulling some sort of inverted April Fool’s joke, only pretending to mock those who would preserve and protect the town’s ancient beauty and heritage. But she’s serious. She is actually mocking the American-style urban renewers that the French rejected for so long. She writes: “Funny people, the French. They must be doing something right. Or could we be doing something wrong? Funny place, the world of the absurd.”

“The World of the Absurd” is the title of the book’s first column. And the world of the absurd is what we have today: beauty and heritage under attack everywhere, even in rural France. And for all too long it was Huxtable herself leading the parade. There are columns in this first collection of her Times criticism that might fool one into thinking she was on the side of the angels. For example, she attacks the proposed (and eventually canceled) Lower Manhattan Expressway – though without even mentioning Jane Jacobs, its leading critic, who is not even listed in the index). Yet most of the columns serve to correct any such false hope. Huxtable considered herself a critic of the conventional wisdom, but she was in fact its tribune, cheerleading for modern architecture at the height of its influence. In her introduction, she claims to feel “no wish or need to take back a word I’ve written here.” Since the few good words fail to cancel out the many bad words, it is too bad we can’t take back her whole career.

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New “courthouse” next door for which old courthouse was abandoned. (NJ.com)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to The Huxtable joke’s on us

  1. Pingback: Huxtable versus Huxtable | Architecture Here and There

  2. Peter Van Erp says:

    As of June 2016, Street View shows a large “Preserved” sign in front of the renamed Justice Brennan Courthouse, and it’s holding up much better than its younger “replacement” next door.

    Like

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