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Critic Huxtable: "Everything in this city is totally developer driven"

In Philip Lopate's interview in today's New York Times with Ada Louise Huxtable, "the dean of American architectural criticism" has some harsh words for the developer-driven world of architecture in New York today.

The interview is headlined Her New York and takes off from Huxtable's new book, On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change. She currently writes for the Wall Street Journal (at 87!) but made her reputation at the Times.

"Eye candy"

Huxtable sets out a central problem: Architecture is a very real and important art; it affects us all so directly. You must judge it in terms of problem-solving in this uneasy, difficult combination of structure and art. My feeling is that criticism is not looking at this — it is treating architecture as eye candy.

Indeed, I'd point out that the late Herbert Muschamp pronounced Atlantic Yards "a Garden of Eden" only with some major blinkers.

Huxtable does offer some praise for the Atlantic Yards architect, though she doesn't mention him in context of the Brooklyn project:
The “wow” buildings. Don’t blame it all on Frank Gehry. Gehry is legit; what he did at Bilbao is superb. He showed us how to marry all the arts in our time. But the lesson taken away from it was: We need something that looks “iconic,” that’s going to put our city on the map.

She acknowledges some tension regarding such buildings: For a while the novelty was very great. It doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of functioning well for people who use it. On the other hand, if it doesn’t take us to another place, it’s nostalgia, and there’s an awful lot of nostalgia operating out there today.

The lesson of Rockefeller Center

Lopate: New York used to be able to build these beautiful cities-within-a city, like Rockefeller Center. Why do you think it’s so hard to do that now?

Huxtable: If you look at Rockefeller Center in detail, it’s a very elegant plan... First of all, Rockefeller Center was privately planned. It was planned for profit; it was a hard-nosed thing, and of course during the Depression it had to be rejiggered completely because it lost its anchor tenant, the Metropolitan Opera. But while Rockefeller insisted on a certain return of profit, he did hire the best architects and let them alone, and they combined Beaux-Arts and modernist principles into a really complex, humanistic urban plan.

Note that there were multiple architects, not one. Gehry has said he'd typically bring other architects in on a project as big as Atlantic Yards, but developer Bruce Ratner said no.

"Totally developer driven"

Huxtable continues: We don’t have that kind of development now. Everything in this city is totally developer driven. You do not get Rockefeller Center-type development unless you have some kind of leadership that will commit to it; and these developers are so powerful and so wealthy and so sure of what they want that you’re starting from a different premise. We’ve had, I think, a very good mayor, who has done good things for the city, but he doesn’t know the difference. Bloomberg’s a businessman: he thinks development is planning.

Lopate: You say in your book, “Here we practice the art of the deal, not the art of the city.”

Huxtable: Exactly. It’s your urban development corporations, state and city, that are in charge of these things, not the planners. There’s nobody in there that has any of this city-making programmed in their heads; they have dollars and cents and time frames. It’s pure business.

The role of density

Lopate: I take it you’re for density but not for overbuilding.

Huxtable: How can I be against density? I’m a New Yorker! I grew up with density. Still, in a way I’m glad for this downturn in the economy. Because so much bad stuff was being built. This will give us a chance to think, to take stock. I am so weary of these stupid alliances between developers and cultural institutions in which the cultural institution is given a block of space and the developers overbuild the rest and make an enormous profit.

She also could have mentioned the alliance between Forest City Ratner and ACORN, which led to, as I've written, a privately-negotiated affordable housing bonus.


  1. ACORN is hardly on Ada Louise Huxtable's radar...and it should be quite obvious she was trashing Donald Trump and the crap he has foisted on the city, not Ratner and Gehry. In fact, she went out of her way to do so.

    Like Jane Jacobs, Huxtable understands the power of density, particularly when married with mass transit.

    All the critics understand is NIMBY.

  2. Yes, Huxtable wasn't trashing Ratner and Gehry. But my point was that the ACORN-FCR alliance also allowed overbuilding.

    "All the critics understand is NIMBY." If the issue were only NIMBY, we wouldn't have the UNITY plan.


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