Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Founding Mother: Mariana Van Rensselaer and the Rise of Criticism

In his recent obituary for Ada Louise Huxtable, the Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne quotes Wim de Wit, head of architecture at the Getty Research Institute, who describes the first architecture critic for The New York Times as “[speaking] powerfully as a woman in this world of men, the architecture world of the 1960s and ’70s.” This seems undeniably true, but it got me thinking. Huxtable’s crucial contribution was not simply to speak “powerfully as a woman in this world of men.” This she certainly did, splendidly, and from the most powerful media platform of her era; yet it seems important to note that women have been “speaking in this world of men” for a long time now. It’s true that Huxtable, in the early ’60s, pioneered the position of full-time architecture critic in America; and she not only made it her own but also shaped a template that others would follow. But she was not the only female candidate for the job. Not then, not now, not before. As a woman writing about the male-dominated building profession, Huxtable belongs within an admirable historic lineage — a caveat which in no way undercuts her achievements; as a female architecture critic in the early 21st century, this seems to me deeply reassuring.