Read as much as you want on BostonGlobe.com, anywhere and anytime, for just 99¢.

Ada Louise Huxtable, pioneer of architectural criticism

Ms. Huxtable disliked banality and government inep­titude.

Gene Maggio/New York Times/file 1973

Ms. Huxtable disliked banality and government inep­titude.

NEW YORK — Ada Louise Huxtable — who pioneered modern architectural criticism in the pages of The New York Times, celebrating buildings that respected human dignity and civic history and memorably scalding those that did not — died Monday in Manhattan. She was 91.

Her lawyer, Robert N. Shapiro, confirmed her death. She lived in Manhattan and Marblehead, Mass.

Continue reading below

Beginning in 1963, as the first full-time architecture critic at an American newspaper, she opened the priestly precincts of design and planning to everyday readers. For that, she won the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, in 1970. More recently, she was the architecture critic of The Wall Street Journal.

‘‘Mrs. Huxtable invented a new profession,’’ a valedictory Times editorial said in 1981, just as she was leaving the newspaper, ‘‘and, quite simply, changed the way most of us see and think about man-made environments.’’

At a time when architects were still in thrall to blank-slate urban renewal, Ms. Huxtable championed preservation, not because old buildings were quaint, or even necessarily historical landmarks, but because they contributed vitally to the cityscape. She was appalled at how profit dictated planning and led developers to squeeze the most floor area onto the least amount of land with the fewest public amenities.

She had no use for banality, monotony, artifice, or ostentation, for private greed or governmental inep­titude. She could be eloquent or impertinent, even sarcastic. Gracefully poised in person, she did not shy in print from comparing the worst of contemporary American architecture to the totalitarian excesses of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin.

‘‘You must love a country very much to be as little satisfied with it as she,’’ Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a US senator from New York, wrote in his preface to a 1970 collection of Ms. Huxtable’s writings, ‘‘Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?’’

It was the first of several books whose titles alone conveyed her impatient, irreverent tone. These ­included ‘‘Kicked a Building Lately?’’ (1976) and ‘‘Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger’’ (1986).

Though knowledgeable about architectural styles, Ms. Huxtable often seemed more interested in ­social substance. She invited readers to consider a building not as an assembly of pilasters and entablatures but as a public statement whose form and placement had real consequences for its neighbors, as well as its occupants.

“I wish people would stop asking me what my favorite buildings are,’’ Ms. Huxtable wrote in The Times in 1971, adding, ‘‘I do not think it really matters very much what my personal favorites are, ­except as they illuminate principles of design and execution useful and essential to the collective spirit that we call society.

‘‘For irreplaceable examples of that spirit I will do real battle.’’

Actually, there was no mistaking what Ms. Huxtable liked: Lever House, the Ford Foundation Building, and the CBS Building in Manhattan; the landmark Bronx Grit Chamber; Boston’s City Hall; the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington; Pennzoil Place in Houston and, more delectably, what she did not.

“The new museum resembles a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops,’’ she wrote in 1964 about the Gallery of Modern Art at 2 Columbus Circle. Her description came to be synonymous with the structure itself, ‘‘the lollipop building,’’ and was probably more familiar to New Yorkers than the name of the architect: Edward Durell Stone.

The long-abandoned gallery has been substantially altered as the Museum of Arts and Design. It might be argued that Ms. Huxtable’s lollipop epithet helped doom preservationists’ later efforts to save the original facade. But Stone’s romantic brand of monumental modernism was never to her liking.

‘‘Albert Speer would have approved,’’ she said in 1971 about his Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, linking Stone indirectly to the Nazis’ chief architect. ‘‘The 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.’’

This was a far cry from the fawning coverage of new buildings that Ms. Huxtable deplored in the newspapers of the 1950s. And it was welcomed.

Ada Louise Landman was born to Leah Rosenthal Landman and Dr. Michael Louis Landman. She grew up in Manhattan in a Beaux-Arts apartment house, the St. Urban, at Central Park West and 89th Street, and wandered enthralled through Grand Central Terminal, the Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum.

She attracted notice in The Times at an early age with her stage-set designs for Hunter College productions of ‘‘The Yellow Jacket’’ in 1940 and ‘‘H.M.S. Pinafore’’ in 1941. After graduating from Hunter in 1941, she attended New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. But her most treasured academic home was probably the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia University.

Out of school, she was hired by Bloomingdale’s to sell a furniture line with works by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. ‘‘Many young architects and designers made the obligatory tour of the rooms,’’ she recalled. ‘‘One of them noticed and married me.’’

That was L. Garth Huxtable, an industrial designer. He took many of the photographs that illustrated his wife’s books. The couple also collaborated in designing tableware for the Four Seasons restaurant, which opened in 1959 in the Seagram Building. Garth Huxtable died in 1989. Ada Huxtable left no immediate survivors.

She was assistant curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art from 1946 to 1950. She was a Fulbright fellow, studying Italian architecture and design in 1950-52, and a Guggenheim fellow in 1958.

In 1958 she addressed a broader audience in The New York Times Magazine with an article criticizing how newspapers covered urban development. ‘‘Superblocks are built, the physiognomy and services of the city are changed, without discussion.’’

You have reached the limit of 5 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week