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'Mad Men' and architectural criticism

August 24, 2009 |  2:48 pm

Ada Louise Huxtable was on "Mad Men" on Sunday night.

Well, not the noted architecture critic herself, who worked for the New York Times for two decades and continues to contribute reliably sharp pieces to the Wall Street Journal. Instead, her name came up early in the episode, set in 1963, as the show's ad executives were meeting with developers to discuss plans to knock down Penn Station to make way for the new Madison Square Garden. (The station was ultimately razed in 1966.)

After one of the agency execs reads from a Huxtable piece condemning the plans, one of the developers gives him a sour look. "Ada Louise Huxtable is as green as that folder," he retorts, gesturing toward a stack of collected press clippings and fliers protesting the proposed demolition. "People know she's an angry woman with a big mouth."

Huxtable, who essentially pioneered the job of daily newspaper architecture criticism, was arguably somewhat green in 1963; though born in 1921, she didn't take up her up her New York Times post until that year, after a stint at the Museum of Modern Art and several years as a contributor to Progressive Architecture and other magazines.

At first, the references to Huxtable and the Penn Station controversy seemed minor name-checks -- subtle signs of the show's much-noted obsession with getting its period details right. They were also reminiscent of a New Yorker cartoon, published in 1968, showing two construction workers at a building site. One of them, reading the newspaper, says to other of the steel skeleton rising behind them: "Ada Louise Huxtable already doesn't like it."

John Hamm as Don Draper As it turned out, though, the conversation struck thematic chords that resonated through the entire episode: cycles of aging, loss and then renewal (what do you think that maypole scene was about, aside from probably telegraphing an affair between Don Draper and his daughter's teacher?); memory as measured against progress; and even California versus New York, which in Mad Men is shorthand for freedom versus responsibility and novelty versus history.

"I was in California," Don later tells one of the Madison Square Garden executives over pre-lunch cocktails. "Everything is new, and it's clean. The people are filled with hope. New York City is in decay. But Madison Square Garden -- it's the beginning of a new city on a hill."

As it turned out, the Garden actually helped produce not a city on a hill but the seeds of a powerful preservation movement, in Manhattan and elsewhere. Almost immediately, New York realized it had made an enormous blunder by knocking down one of its most remarkable pieces of architecture -- a building Huxtable later described as "McKim, Mead and White's Roman extravaganza in cream travertine and pink granite, later soot-darkened."

The episode was also a reminder of how much times have changed: These days, you might hear an ad executive complaining about the relative age and sluggishness of Los Angeles as compared to cities with high-speed rail lines and quickly mushrooming skylines. "I was in Dubai," our contemporary, Culver City version of Don Draper might say to a developer, fingering an Anchor Steam instead of a Manhattan. Or "I was in Shanghai ..."

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photo: John Hamm as Don Draper. Credit: Associated Press/AMC

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