THE TALL BUILDING ARTISTICALLY RECONSIDERED: The Search for a Skyscraper Style by Ada Louise Huxtable
Kirkus Star

THE TALL BUILDING ARTISTICALLY RECONSIDERED: The Search for a Skyscraper Style

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

A strong critical stand on the skyscraper's historical modes and its present, anarchic state. Huxtable made her name as the New York Times' learned, fighting architecture critic; an exponent of modernism with an eye for nuance, and an advocate of social responsibility. The present work, expanded from a lecture series and written as a MacArthur Fellow (which, she notes, freed her for study), is grounded in modernist-postmodernist combat--for Huxtable, ""Today's skyscraper stands at a crossroads. . . between architecture as mission and architecture as style""--but it also takes important steps, illustrated page by page, toward a new critical synthesis. Huxtable divides skyscraper-history into four phases: the functional, in which ""architecture was the servant of engineering"" and business (the utilitarian classics of the Chicago school); the eclectic, which produced ""skilled academic exercises"" and spectacular monuments (exemplified, in the reconsideration of recent years, by New York's 1890s-1920s buildings); and the modern, which Huxtable divides into the austere, reformist ""modern"" proper and the decorative, conservative ""modernistic"" (now dubbed Art Deco)--and about which she writes commandingly. There is the recognition that ""modern architecture aimed too high and promised too much, in defiance of too many natural laws""; there is the assertion that Mies (criticized for structural sleight-of-hand) was no more striving for strict functionalism than Louis Sullivan (long criticized for decorative detail)--both are denied their ""poetic license""; there is-the claim--backed by pages of abutting facades--that the benighted glass box, born of the Miesian skyscraper, had produced a superb urban vernacular, ""probably the handsomest and most useful set of architectural conventions since the Georgian row house."" Huxtable then moves ""beyond modernism"" (through complex transitional structures by Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, Kevin Roche) to ""the stylistic phenomenon known as postmodernism."" But her quotable strictures (""they are preoccupied with making reputations and images,"" ""the unfashionable and unspeakable are suddenly in vogue""), even her deeper probings (""they seem to express a social and political conservatism. . . a parvenu old-tie, antiliberal snobbism of the new, and young, far Right""), are secondary, in achieving a new aesthetic and social perspective, to the fine-tuned assessments of 1980s work, in a variety of postmodernist modes, with which the book concludes. It's an eclectic, dramatic exercise itself--searching and engaged in all directions.

Pub Date: April 29th, 1985
Publisher: Pantheon