Frank Rich on Ada Louise Huxtable

2008 President's Medal honoree

February 5, 2008

Photo: David Malosh

On February 5, 2008 The Architectural League of New York presented its President’s Medal to Ada Louise Huxtable.The President’s Medal is the Architectural League’s highest honor and is bestowed, at the discretion of the League’s President and Board of Directors, on individuals to recognize an extraordinary body of work in architecture, urbanism, or design.

During the awards ceremony dinner, Frank Rich delivered the following remarks in a pre-recorded video.

Good evening, and I’m very glad to be here, even in this way, to pay tribute to Ada Louise tonight. I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but part of my job this year seems to be to attend to a very messy practice of American democracy. Like many people who have worked as critics in American journalism, I’ve been hugely influenced by Ada Louise. I actually remember the very first time I ever heard her voice—I don’t mean her actual voice, but the voice she had as a writer. I had just gotten out of college in 1971. My hometown was Washington D.C., and Ada Louise was weighing in on the occasion of the opening of the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts. I’d like to just read a little bit of what she wrote in The New York Times in 1971:

This capital city specializes in ballooning monuments and endless corridors. It uses marble like cotton wool. It is the home of government of, for, and by the people, and of taste for the people—the big, the bland, and the banal. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, opening officially Wednesday, does not break the rule. The style of the Kennedy Center is Washington superscale, but just a little bit bigger. Albert Speer would approve. … This building is a national tragedy. It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried.

Reading it again now I’m stopped by another sentence, which is sort of buried in the middle, but which I think sums up what makes Ada Louise such a remarkable critic: “Environmentally,” she wrote, “the center has been severely criticized for its setting and isolation from city life. But many Washingtonians like the idea of driving to a “safe bastion of culture.” Again, it’s what people really want.”

Criticism shows us the world we build in art, culture, policy and practice.

Ada Louise always made the connection between art, and in our case art and architecture, and the world around it, and here we are, almost 40 years later, and still the Kennedy Center is being redesigned almost annually to try to solve the problem that Ada Louise first identified all those years ago, that it is cut off from the city. It’s a maseoleum for art, removed from the very people it’s supposed to serve and the very culture it’s supposed to serve. As you all know, Ada Louise invented the idea of architecture criticism in American journalism, and certainly at least in American newspaper journalism.

But Ada recognized that there was a connection between her journalism criticism, and the greater good of the city, the country and the world. There is a connection particularly between architecture and public policy. Yet there’s nothing ponderous, as you can see, in Ada Louise’s writing, and that voice I always heard all those years ago is very much the voice of her writing today, right through such recent deals that have gone through New York, such as at Ground Zero and the attempt to build a stadium on the West Side of Manhattan. It’s a remarkable career in writing and criticism and it’s one that’s influenced people like myself because of her ability to make connections, draw a bigger picture, and not do it narrowly, by simply reviewing a building. I want to read just a couple of other brief things that Ada Louise has written over the years that crystalize this point about her criticism. In an essay some years ago about architecture criticism, she wrote why her field is so extraordinary, of all the cultural forms that journalists and critics might have to deal with: “Architecture,” as she put it, “is in an endless struggle between the aesthetic and the pragmatic, on a battlefield of politics, money and power. A critic of architecture must be a decoder, a demystefier, a debunker, a guide to values and meanings about wealth, technology and status, a link between past and present.” Though she was writing about architectural criticism, the fact is that the best of criticism in all of the arts has some of these elements. From her specific craft, in part, come general principles that apply to anyone who writes criticism. endless struggle between the aesthetic and the pragmatic, on a battlefield of politics, money and power.

I’d like to include one other passage from a piece that Ada Louise wrote, where she quotes another critic: “Criticism shows us the world we build in art, culture, policy, and practice. It is the combination of intellectual and aesthetic response. It is the way we put art in context. Menken went to the heart of the matter when he measured the critic’s work by his ability to make ‘the leap of the work of art into the vast and the furious complex of phenomena behind it.’ These connections are what fascinate us, and it is this leap of faith and vision, as many have understood, that leads from the work of art to life itself, so that art may play its basic function of enriching life. That is the undertaking in which the artist, the critic, and the public are uniquely joined, and it is in this universally shared experience, rather than as a solitary creative act, that criticism carries its primary obligation and earns its greatest rewards.” No one has given us those rewards more than Ada Louise Huxtable.

Frank Rich
February 5, 2008
New York City