Watching Huell, Reading Ada

Yesterday, we found out that we lost both Huell Howser, ebullient television personality and tireless booster of Los Angeles, and Ada Louise Huxtable, pioneering architecture critic and stalwart champion of great buildings. Howser died Sunday and Huxtable Monday, but the news of their deaths went public within hours of each other. Although I had never met either in person, as I watched my Twitter feed fill with alternating tributes to both of them—Ada Huell Ada Huell Huell Ada Ada—I felt a very real sense of loss. Two of my journalistic role models. On the same day.

I don’t think it will come as any surprise to people who know me when I admit that I aspire to become a Howser-Huxtable hybrid in the course of my career. I can’t just watch Howser or read Huxtable, I find myself studying them. Because although their approaches were wildly different, they both used their strong and distinctive voices to help us—their loyal, hungry audience—to see, appreciate, and protect the places where we live.

As the host of his many television shows, Howser ostensibly set out to discover the weird, wacky and wonderful to be found across the state. But as I re-watched him tour the Hollywood sign yesterday (all of Howser’s California’s Gold shows are archived onlinethanks to Chapman University), I saw an urban philosopher who assembles a fresh narrative of how Hollywood itself relates to those 50-foot letters on the hill. (And then hilariously ad libs as he tumbles down Mt. Lee.) His visit to Watts Towers brings a level of context you just don’t see in most stories about Simon Rodia’s masterpiece: He rides the brand new Blue Line there, walks the blocks around it, visits the adjacent art center, giving a comprehensive survey of the neighborhood. And although I loved his unbridled,easily lampooned enthusiasm, it was not only his twangy, folksy delivery that endeared him to his audience, it was the simplicity of his mission: We don’t need to go far away to visit great places. We can find everything right here in our own backyards. And hey, what’s that over there?

In her many years as the New York Times architecture critic (its first) and then later as the Wall Street Journal’s critic, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote many of the best pieces ever published about what makes a city great. In 1968, she wrote one of my all-time favorite pieces of criticism: “Sometimes We Do it Right” (posted as a PDF by Alexandra Lange, author of an excellent book about architectural criticism), which is, in essence, a walking tour which leads the reader through a sliver of triumphant urban design in Lower Manhattan. She was a critic who could examine not just a solitary building, but how an entire block knit together. She argued that a building could stand for something beyond its mirrored glass façade (the cheeky Kicked a Building Lately? was the title of her 1976 book). And she never abandoned her adamant quest to make New York City a better place. In fact just last week, at 91, she wrote a piece criticizing the plans to “modernize” the New York Public Library. She instructed us to demand more from our built environment, right until the end.

It’s that innate advocacy that I would argue is the most powerful aspect of both Howser and Huxtable’s work. Without labeling themselves as militant preservationists, their work eloquently and entertainingly tugged at the engaged citizen, the proud resident, the curious urbanist in all of us, asking us to consider what mattered in our own neighborhoods.

Every week, for many years, Howser and Huxtable each delivered the best parts of the city to our living rooms and breakfast tables. But even more importantly, they inspired us to get out there and experience it for ourselves.

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