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Close reading: Annotating Ada Louise Huxtable's infamous 'lollipop' review

September 25, 2008 |  2:30 pm

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Six years ago, the city of New York sold Edward Durell Stone's 1964 building at 2 Columbus Circle (above left) to the Museum of Arts and Design. With the sale came permission to replace the controversial building, the subject of a passionate preservation battle, with a new piece of architecture. But museum officials weren't sure they wanted or needed to knock down the old structure altogether. They decided, in the end, to use the concrete skeleton of Stone's building as the template for a new design (above right) by Portland, Ore., architect Brad Cloepfil and his firm Allied Works Architecture. Cloepfil sliced through the concrete with narrow, snaking window bands and covered the exterior with a taut new skin of terra-cotta tiles. He has described the process as “editing” Stone's building.

Any architecture critic attempting to judge Cloepfil’s efforts (as I do in today's Calendar section) has a similarly imposing historical object to contend with -- namely, Ada Louise Huxtable’s New York Times review of the Stone building, which appeared on Feb. 25, 1964, and remains one of the most infamous and influential essays in all of arts journalism. Huxtable described ...

the museum galleries as “lavish” and “smothering” and said Stone's exterior resembled a “die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops.”

It was the last part that really stung and stuck: Not only was the building forever after known by New Yorkers as “the lollipop building,” but “lollipop building” also became a kind of shorthand, used to dismiss any piece of architecture one found insufficiently serious. (Cloepfil's replacement, as I explain in my review, may become known as the "Hi" building.) During the protracted debate in recent years about the fate of 2 Columbus Circle, Huxtable’s phrase hung over the place like a noose.

With that long history in mind -- and sensing that many architects and critics have never actually read the review, for all its influence -- I decided to try dealing with Huxtable the way Cloepfil dealt with Stone. In other words, to create something new by slicing through and annotating something old. The result should be taken in the spirit in which it was produced: as a sign of respect for Huxtable’s forceful criticism -- even though we happen to disagree on the value of this particular building -- and as an experiment, one designed very much with Internet journalism in mind.

Huxtable’s words (which have in certain sections been trimmed, noted with ellipses) are in italics, mine in Roman text.

Architecture: Huntington Hartford’s Palatial Midtown Museum

Columbus Circle Gallery Will Open in Mid-March

By Ada Louise Huxtable

On Columbus Circle, which some people have long remembered as a sordid and dismembered open space on West 59th Street watched over by Christopher Columbus on a column, a small white palace is approaching completion. Two things to note here, beyond the evocative pairing of "remembered" and "dismembered." One is that Columbus Circle, now home to David Childs’ sleek, somnolent Time Warner Center, among other boring buildings, has in the last decade been spiffed up to the point of sterility, which makes losing the idiosyncratic energy of Stone’s design all the tougher to take. The other is that it would be wrong to characterize Cloepfil's approach to the Stone building -- however full of hubris or lacking in humor it may be -- as careless or entirely disrespectful. He studiously matched the new design's size and color to the old one, so that as an object in the cityscape the building continues to read as a “small white palace.”

Columbus now points a hortatory finger at a 10-story arcaded and screened marble building that is causing more talk and speculation among New Yorkers than anything since the Guggenheim Museum. History repeats itself: No building in New York has attracted more attention this year than Cloepfil’s.

In spite of its name, the Gallery of Modern Art is primarily a museum for a collector who does not admire modern art, if modern art is understood as including a hard core of progressive, experimental abstraction. Is this a clue? Is Huxtable arguing that "progressive, experimental abstraction" is at the heart not just of authentic modern art but also of the architecture she most admires -- or at least most admired in 1964? The building is by Edward Durell Stone, an architect who rejects the provocative, puzzling and sometimes brutal aspects of today’s architecture in much the same way. No traditionalist, he simply prefers a less controversial idiom, avoids the more provoking and stimulating experiments, smooths off the rugged edges, and pads well with wall-to-wall luxury. Nobody can emasculate an architect with serious and yet above-the-fray panache quite like Huxtable. “Avoids the more provoking and stimulating experiments, smooths off the rugged edges, pads well”: Every critic dreams of being able to strike such a blow, offhanded and punishing at the same time -- an uppercut delivered while stifling a yawn.

And yet Stone’s building has had plenty to say to later generations of architects and critics, particularly in the way it deploys ornament. The idea of a façade as decorated, punched-through screen, or the closely related idea of digital pattern stretched across a wall or a room, has shown up recently in the work of Herzog & de Meuron, Peter Zumthor, the young duo Aranda\Lasch and many other innovative architecture and design firms. Huxtable has generally sounded impatient over the years with the idea that younger critics might see Stone's building as worth fighting for. The main problem with that stance is that it assumes the value of a piece of architecture is fixed the moment it opens. But many of us born after the building was have found it not only likable but highly relevant to contemporary questions in architecture and urbanism.

Outside, the new museum resembles a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollypops. They spelled "lollypop" differently back then; when we quote Huxtable's review today, we usually silently change the ‘y’ to an ‘i.’

It begs for a canal or a garden setting, rather than the dusty disorder of a New York traffic circle. Again, the current clean-scrubbed, high-end version of Columbus Circle -- and much of Manhattan, for that matter -- is predictable enough to make “dusty disorder” sound attractive.

Inside the new museum there is much more than meets the passing eye. The irregular-shaped building is only about 96 feet on its longest side, but its plan is an accomplished demonstration of one of the basic principles of architectural design -- the expert manipulation of space by an expert hand. We tend to forget that this review, which had the effect of permanently gutting Stone’s reputation, paused on several occasions to praise him.

This interior planning is the building’s conspicuous success, an achievement to command considerable admiration. What will be admired by the public, however, are the building’s cosmetics — many running feet of rich macassar ebony, walnut, bronze, glasscloth, thick red and gold carpets, parquet floors, the celebrated Stone grilles — all applied with lavish generosity and occasionally smothering overtones of domestic luxury. Cosmetics, rich, celebrated, lavish, smothering, even public: These were among the most loaded words in Huxtable’s critical arsenal, meant to inflict serious damage.

The Hartford Gallery will provide a sybaritic setting (Here, precisely at "sybaritic," we’ve reached the heart of Huxtable’s problem with Stone’s work: that it is indulgent and perhaps self-indulgent and tries to be both architecturally ambitious and luxurious, which for the critic was a nearly criminal contradiction in terms) for some interesting, offbeat shows that New York might otherwise not see.

The building works well, poses no challenges, asks no hard questions and gives no controversial answers. The thesis statement. There will be Polynesian luau lunches in the ninth-floor penthouse (you better believe I am kicking myself for not mentioning the phrase “Polynesian luau lunches” somewhere in my own review), an espresso bar in the eighth-floor lounge, and the soothing strains of a 23½-foot-high Aeolian-Skinner organ accommodated between the second and third floors. Ditto for the “Aeolian-Skinner organ.”

A small auditorium in the basement seats 154 persons. Like “lollypops,” “persons” stands out as an anachronism, as dated linguistically as any of the "celebrated Stone grilles” ever became architecturally. Four floors will be devoted to exhibitions. It is a costly, comfortable building that breaks no architectural frontiers, but seems perfectly suited to its functions, purposes and patron.

Since 1964, Stone’s building has proved perfectly suited in one other important way: as a kind of screen onto which New Yorkers could project their feelings about aesthetics, history, memory and the value of aging architecture. In addition to Huxtable, those New Yorkers have included Herbert Muschamp, who wrote a moving if typically overlong valentine to the building while filling Huxtable's old chair, and Tom Wolfe, who was also moved to defend it at some length.

That screen is set to rise one last time. Huxtable, now well into her 80s and having lost none of her rhetorical fire, continues to write occasional pieces for the Wall St. Journal. Her review of Cloepfil's design is apparently set to appear any day now.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Left photo Ed Bailey / Associated Press

Photo by Helene Binet


 
Comments () | Archives (2)

sorry, the Cloepfil building is known as the "HE" building, though I can see why the MAD people would try to spin it as "HI"

It's not bad inside, but you have to admit the exterior is undistinguished at best, an oversized image of a techno-refrigerator at worst. Is that what you say in your review?

Locals are happy the construction shed is gone, however. It was there for years, and reeked of urine. That was the city's fault, of course.

It's a shame that we had to lose Stone's Moorish fantasia, but what can you do?

oooh, now I'm reading your comments above, and I'm sorry, but you could hardly be more wrong. The Time Warner building is an interesting design, distinctive on the skyline and very lively on the street (not that we like its shadow on the park, or what goes on in the executive suite), and the new Columbus Circle, though a typical example of contemporary streetscape design, can hardly be called "sterile" -- in practice it's much nicer than before, and a great place to sit in the sun. You want non-sterile, believe me, there are plenty of such places in this burg.

so, that's two mistakes in the first few sentences. I'm afraid that's all you get from me.


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