THE UNREAL AMERICA
MAY 15, 1997
David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic for the Wall Street Journal, author of The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion.
JIM LEHRER: Now a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic for the Wall Street Journal, author of The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion.
DAVID GERGEN: Mrs. Huxtable, let me read back to you just a few passages from your new book. You say, "This is a country in near total architectural retreat. Fast food mediocrity stretches from sea to sea. And again it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the real fake from the fake fake." Tell us, whatís going on here?
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE, Author, "The Unreal America": Well, that rather summarizes it. This is a country that prefers an invented past, invented places. It is the country of theme parks and malls and historic restoration of stage sets, and the thing that distresses me is that we prefer all of this to the real thing because this is also a country rich in history and architecture.
DAVID GERGEN: When you say historic stage sets, what did you have in mind?
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: Well, Williamsburg is a classic, I think. Certainly, much of this is reconstruction. The capital is completely reconstructed. They get carried away. They begin to make wonderful collections of beautiful artifacts that never were there in the first place.
DAVID GERGEN: The Williamsburg retains much of its original character up to 1770.
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: Itís synthetic. Itís completely synthetic. They moved out over a hundred. They destroyed or moved over a hundred buildings that were passed what they call that cutoff date, and then they brought other buildings in from other places. And theyíve--thereís--itís scholarly. Itís studious. Itís conscientiously done, but it is synthetic.
DAVID GERGEN: In a sense, do you think it distorted some of the history?
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: I donít think itís real history.
DAVID GERGEN: You seem to reserve a good deal of your venom for--if one may call it that--for Las Vegas and for the Disney parks, for Disney World And Disneyland.
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: Well, no, actually I donít. I do for the Disney effort, but not for Las Vegas. When you say the difference between the real fake and the fake fake, well, Las Vegas is the real fake. That is so synthetic. We all know that itís completely phoney. And, in fact, you can even admire some of it when itís imaginative enough. This new on "New York, New York" is so successful theyíre going to do "Paris, France," which I think is a great idea in the Nevada desert because nobody could make a mistake and think it was really Paris.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: And New York is quite marvelously done.
DAVID GERGEN: Then how is Disneyland, if you go to Main Street, why nobody would think thatís Main Street USA either.
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: Itís a very impoverished representation of Main Street. Itís poor in design; itís poor in quality; and there is an increasing tendency in these theme parks to make bits and pieces of cities that people then think they never have to go to see. And they are not well designed. And the real place has so much more, so much that is real and interesting and beautiful, grungy, glorious. You know, cities are great places, and our cities are very good.
DAVID GERGEN: Your argument is that this has driven by what?
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: Oh, itís driven by profit. Itís driven by money. The bottom line is all money. There is nothing, nothing more profitable than the entertainment industry, the kinds of things that Disney does. These theme parks are all extremely profitable. Thereís no way to really see a way out of it because itís just so--itís such big business.
DAVID GERGEN: And do you think itís affecting the rest of our architecture?
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: I think itís making a tremendous gap between our good architecture and our real cities and the architects who are capable of doing excellent things.
DAVID GERGEN: Tell me how you respond to a young couple that says, look, for years, the rich have been escaping to their chateaus and their villas, to their imitation fox hunts, and to their casinos built--imitations of other casinos elsewhere in the world--why begrudge us a chance to go off for three days with our kids to a theme park that they enjoy, thatís safe and that we can afford.
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: Because I want something better. Iím an elitist populist or a populist elitist. When you are in a field like mine, and youíve been in it a long time, youíve seen a lot of wonderful things. I mean, you see the whole level being reduced to this standardized theme park schlock, which it really is, you want better for everybody. Just because they donít know what they want, donít know thereís another kind of entertainment or another kind of--another way to live, or another way to build doesnít mean that you shouldnít really struggle to bring that to everybody.
DAVID GERGEN: You say that in the midst of this mediocrity and schlock, as you call it, there are new architects emerging who are not modernists, theyíre not post-modernists. Theyíre post-post-modernists, you know, that they have something to offer that we ought to be appreciating and celebrating.
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: I think this is the greatest period since the Renaissance in architecture. We got through modernism and then that became dogma. We went through post-modernism, which broke all the rules. And now there are--there are always good architects, but now they are exploring new ways. Theyíre pushing the frontiers of space and building, and of course, we have all the new technology, so thereís a marvelous architecture really going on now all around the world but less here because I really believe weíve become so used to the--to the synthetic, the copy, the phony, the easy way, the user-friendly thing, and architecture isnít always easy, even though itís sometimes rather hard to understand, so that I think thereís this great gap now, and this lack of patronage so that these buildings are not being built here.
DAVID GERGEN: What American architect would you cite as someone we should look to as being a good architect?
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: Yes. We have them on the East Coast. We have them on the West Coast. They tend to gather in cities again because they created places very rich that also gives something to the artist. Thereís a marvelous West Coast school now of really quite extreme work, because they are great at letting it all hang out. Theyíre very laid back even about their work. Frank Gary has a whole group of young architects not so young anymore, 60's young, you know, for an architect before they let Ďem really build. And then we have Harry Goodwins on the East Coast. Thereís Steve Hall, and where is he building? Heís building the new Museum of Modern Art in Helsinki.
DAVID GERGEN: So we have side by side in this country a great deal of what you call shlock or fake and then some new emerging architecture thatís good. How does the untrained eye recognize whatís good and what you would put down?
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: I really donít know. I donít think you see--Iíve always seen my work--first at the Times and now at the Wall Street Journal--as telling people about it, helping them to see it, telling them where it is and what it is and whatís important about it. Itís a sharing. Iím a sharer. I want people to see and enjoy these things. And when I started, I was the only architecture critic. The Times created the job for me. Now thereís one on virtually every paper in the country, and if theyíre doing this job, and if people are reading the papers, maybe they donít read the papers anymore, but they--they should be getting the information. I do find a lot of people look for these buildings.
DAVID GERGEN: Yeah. And you think theyíre there in the central cities or the big cities frequently.
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: Yes. And there are other places like Columbus, Indiana, where Irwin Miller for many years has made it--I suppose you might call a model architectural community because he has offered to pay the architectís fees if they were selected as distinguished architect or an interesting architect, so thereís a great deal to see out there. And that should be an interesting tourist spot if people want to see real architecture.
DAVID GERGEN: See America but not the theme parks then.
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: Well, Iím not that hard on them really. I just want to see everybody do everything and at least have the option of the good things too.
DAVID GERGEN: Mrs. Huxtable, thank you very much.
ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE: Thank you. It was a pleasure.