, Newburyport, MA


January 31, 2013

A consideration for Newburyport's preservation

To the editor:

Ada Louis Huxtable died on Jan. 7, 2013. In 1963, she began writing architectural criticism for the New York Times, and later won the first Pulitzer Prize for Art Criticism. She was an advocate and aesthetic educator communicating views on public policy, technology, and politics.

Huxtable believed that the prime consideration in architecture should be how it makes people who use it feel. Architectural critic Edward Lifson remarked that her analysis was “never about the developer, or the theory or new heights, or innovation for innovation’s sake. It was about how [architecture] improves the user. Is this fair, is this just? She compared it to an ideal: Is this the best project that could be on this site? Or is it good enough for us? Is this how we should be remembered? Or are we being sold down the river?”

In the 1950s and ‘60s, a period enthralled by “heroic corporate modernism,” Huxtable emphasized the potential in modernism for the “deathlessly ordinary.” In 1963, she railed against demolition of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station, “monument to the lost art of magnificent construction” to erect Madison Square Garden, a “giant pizza stand.” Then, historic preservation was viewed as a fringe concept impeding progress. Development was embraced as serving the public good. Skeptical of dogma, Huxtable challenged developers’ attitude of entitlement. She was an impassioned voice of countervailing opinion.

In 1965, she said that “blind mutilation in the name of urban renewal” was too dominant a force, and she worked to create for New York City the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Over the years, the commission saved many building including the Art Deco treasure, Radio City Music Hall. In 1968, she wrote that “what preservation is really about is the retention and active relationship of the buildings of the past to the community’s functioning present.” She urged us to consider what constitutes sustainable design. Her writing opened readers to meditations on how we live and what legacy we want to leave.

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