BY DAN HANECKOW
Ada Louise Huxtable, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times and Wall Street Journal architectural critic as well as a celebrated author and preservationist, died on January 7 at the age of 91.
Although New York City was the primary arena for this greatest of American architecture writers, Huxtable often traveled to other cities around the world, including Portland in 1970.
“Doctors bury their mistakes, architects plant vines and Portland covers them with roses.” So began Ada Louise Huxtable’s piece that appeared in the New York Times on June 19 of that year.
A month earlier, Huxtable had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for architectural criticism. She visited Portland after attending the opening of the Alvar Aalto-designed Mount Angel Abbey Library.
Huxtable, the nation's most influential and acclaimed architecture critic, saw in Portland a prime example of the forces arrayed against American cities, albeit in a spectacular setting. The headline read: "In Portland Ore., Urban Decay is Masked by Natural Splendor."
Her initial impression was positive.
“Small scaled, comfortably pedestrian streets with a cosmopolitan architectural mix are bounded by the hills on the west and the Willamette River on the east, with spreading residential and industrial areas beyond that double the metropolitan population,” Huxtable wrote.
She noted there were battles over whether apartment houses should be allowed on the hills among single family homes, on how to save historic landmarks, and protect neighborhoods from an expanding in-town university.
She rhapsodized on snow capped peaks, a cyclorama sky and 35 miles of rustic foot trails, then concluded, “This is a dreamworld urbanism; a city blessed by nature and by man. It is so lovely that Portlanders are lulled into a kind of false security about its urban health.”
Portland had “a curious apathy,” Huxtable argued, to problems whose symptoms were obvious.
“The scattered bomb-site look of downtown parking lots made by demolishing older buildings that pay less than metered asphalt and the blocks given over totally to parking garages or a combination of open lot and garage, are destroying the cohesive character of the city as decisively as a charge of dynamite wherever they occur. Sixty percent of city ground is now covered by automobiles.”
“Inadequate public transportation was accompanied by rising fares. Suburban shopping centers demagnetized downtown.”
“Everything is not coming up roses.”
She was especially critical of the city’s new corporate skyline. Portland had “… a better-than-average assortment of the Anywhere U.S.A. products of the large, national, big-city architectural firms, with their interchangeable towers and plaza’s multiplying a slick, redundant formula.”
“Against the suave schlock of some of Portland’s current architectural imports, Mt. Hood doesn’t stand a chance.”
“This tower will be tapered and rail-finned, with an accessory block-square box, in a manner that finally died unmourned in Detroit but that the Southern California sun seems to keep alive," the Times critic added. "In style, scale and impact it will be alien corn, in every sense of the word.”
“The neatly extravagant Unistyle commercial model by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, suitable for use by any major corporation in any American city, with soap sculpture on the inevitable plaza, rises to 375 feet.”
“No one has stopped looking at the tops of these buildings long enough to see what is happening on the ground. Each one is contributing to the devitalization of the city. Virtually all of them eliminate the life on the street. There is nothing on each square block on which these buildings rise- where there should be window, shops, pedestrian activities- but a corporate entrance and a parking garage."
"This deadly design usually employs the most foolproof city-wrecking device ever adopted by architects, for which today’s practitioners must surely be called to account. It is the tower on an elevated plaza, or podium, one floor above ground level, which puts a concrete or marble bunker on the street- a blind, insolent formidable fortress raised against pedestrian humanity, and its friendliest function is to receive cars.”
“The new Portland then, consists largely of towers, bunkers and bomb sites," she wrote. "And the mathematics have not yet been devised that will dispose of all the cars that the working population of each new skyscraper brings.”
Huxtable praised the South Auditorium urban renewal area, somewhat faintly.
“Because the work has spanned the decade from 1958 to 1969, with some later use of rehabilitation for an extension of the original area, Portland was able to learn from the most desolate and early mistakes of other cities. Opinions on the necessity and efficacy of the relocation process vary.” The apartment towers by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill were handsome though. She attributed much of its success to the landscape of fresh lush growth, without which the plan would be sterile.
She adored Lawrence Halprin’s fountain installation.
“The project is brought to life by Lovejoy Park – Lawrence Halprin’s fountain plaza, which is the area’s social center and a notable work of environmental space and sculpture. A larger edition is almost finished as a forecourt for the city’s neuter auditorium.” (In a later article she would describe the Ira Keller forecourt fountain as “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance).
Portland’s Park Blocks and “,,,a handful of Victorian of commercial buildings (that) are protected by fierce citizen determination and a special design district designation,” also drew positive notice.
Portland was not accustomed to notice by the New York Times. The attention was not entirely welcome. When The Oregonian ran the piece it was retitled to somewhat soften the blow: "Portland’s New Architecture: Towers, Bunkers, Bombsites."
“I don’t like the article and I’m surprised The Oregonian would publish something like this,” responded Ralph Voss, President of the First National Bank of Oregon, whose new building Huxtable described as alien corn. “I don’t know who she is, but I know who Charles Luckman is," Voss said of the First National building's relatively famous businessman-slash-architect. "I think she was just trying to be cute.”
“I guess she’s entitled to her opinion,” Bob Lee, a Georgia Pacific Vice President noted. “But the (Georgia Pacific) building was designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, among the world’s leading architects. I think they are probably better equipped than the young lady in question. As a citizen I think for someone to blow into town and write an article critical of all Portland structures is presumptuous and preposterous.”
Others found merit it her observations.
“I wish we had more of the same sort of criticism. She said a lot of things many of us have been thinking, but we aren’t really free to criticize our fellow architects,” commented Gary Mitchell, a former chairman of the civic design committee of the Portland chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
“I think she’s brilliant and she’s dead right,” said Richard A. Campbell of Campbell, Yost and Partners (today YGH Architecture).
John Kenward, executive director of the Portland Development Commission, noted cohesive design in Portland was difficult to achieve because 47 percent of the city area was streets. “Full block, or combined block development is encouraged to get around the problem," he said. "Perhaps there is a point in comments about planning, in that we haven’t always given as much thought to it as we should.”
Norman Zimmer, architect (and ZGF principal) noted city dwellers needed to positively assert civic pride to ensure enlightened development and design in the future. “I have the feeling most of the people who make the decisions put on their hats and motor out to Dunthorp at night," he said. "It’s up to us in the city to get public awareness built up”.
Huxtable wound down her 1970 Times piece by writing, "Some day, some American city will discover the Malthusian truth that the greater number of automobiles, the less the city can accommodate them without destroying itself. The downtown that turns itself into a parking lot is spreading its own dissolution. The price for Portland is already alarmingly high. But there are no easy answers, or no American city would be in trouble.”
Two years later, Portland’s Downtown Plan of 1972 would be released. With its emphasis on transit, density, lively street level activity and preservation, it addressed many of the ills that Huxtable enumerated.
In hindsight, her piece was part of Portland’s process in recognizing a need for change. In the architectural community, her observations fell on fertile ground. Even the Oregonian agreed with her that downtown was too automobile oriented.The results of the 1972 plan - a walkable Portland, lively with a re-magnetized downtown and a more balanced approach to the automobile - continues to be revisited by the New York Times.
“The Bank of California building even put a fountain in its garage at the incongruous corner where the cars turn around onto the exit ramp. A switch Bernini never dreamed of. In the age of the automobile, it has a kind of ludicrous logic.”
The fountain can still be seen beneath the Union Bank of California building on Broadway between Washington and Stark, with the addition of bike racks next to it.
Two years away from the implementation of the 1972 Downtown Plan, Huxtable ended her article on a note hope, however distant.
"But some day," she wrote, "some American city will discover the Malthusian truth that the greater number of automobiles, the less the city can accommodate them without destroying itself. The downtown that turns itself into a parking lot is spreading its own dissolution. "
That city to discover the truth and chart a different future, arguably, was the one she had just visited.