Book Review: On Architecture

Ada Louise Huxtable’s most recent book, On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change is her 10th book.  The book is a selection of columns and articles written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the New York Review of Books.  Huxtable included some essays that were never before published, but fit in with the larger picture of the book.

The subtitle of the book suggests a reflection of the written pieces, but all articles were printed as they were originally published.  Huxtable hasn’t gone back and made any notes on her written pieces, because she felt “the issues can only be understood in their original context.”  I agree that editing them now is useless, but it would have been interesting to get some personal insight, in some cases 50 years later. Her articles have shaped the view of architecture for readers of the NYTimes for over decades, how does she see it now? So rather than being “reflections” on architecture of the last 50 years the book gives a great selection of criticism curated by Huxtable herself.

The set of articles published in the book tell the story of the “transformation of the modernism that pervaded every intellectual and cultural aspect of the twentieth century into a new way of thinking and building.” The pieces are all written as single works, meant for publication on their own. It’s hard to organize them, though it would be an interesting experiment to organize them chronologically to see what kind of story comes up. Instead, the pieces are categorized by theme, some that seem relevant, and some that were probably made up only to accommodate articles that didn’t fit in anywhere else.

The eight parts of the book are: The Way We Were, The Way We Built, Modernism and its Masters, Modernism and its Discontents, New York, Failures and Follies, Taste and Style, and Strictly Personal. What makes these groups a little useless is their subdivisions, which are different for every section. The first part is subdivided by decade (‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s), the second part “The Way We Built” has subtitles like, “Twentieth-Century Icons and Images.” “Washington,” “Museums” and “Skyscrapers” – what exactly do these smaller groups mean?

All in all, don’t look at the index, don’t try to make sense of it, and don’t take the book’s title too seriously. Just read it, and let yourself get swept away through the world architecture in the twentieth century.

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