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From the Archives: Robert A.M. Stern

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Robert A.M. Stern has for decades been one of America’s most celebrated architects, respected not only in architectural circles but in social ones as well. It’s because of this that AVENUE chose to include him on our list of New York City’s “Power Elite.” And as this article from our April 1978 issue shows, Stern has gained that lofty reputation through decades of hard work.


“Most people understand much more about architecture than we as a profession nhave given them credit for. One has only to look at television advertising to realize that there is a great value set by our society – symbolic value – on great works of architecture of the past. Cars are presented in front of the Taj Mahal, deodorant at the Eiffel Tower. Truly elegant consumer products are always presented in front of accepted symbols that have achieved status in our society – architecture. So architecture means a lot to people.” – Robert A. M. Stern

Surrounded in his office by such “historical status symbols” as late-nineteenth century paneled walls and scrolls of molding, art deco-like partitions with moongate view holes, the windows overlooking a Renaissance bank of the 1920s, architect Robert A. M. Stern is entering a historical epoch in his career.

Once the enfant terrible of New York architects, Stern is now in his tenth year of private practice and will soon by disqualified from the successful series of design exhibitions he organized for architects under forty years of age. Robert Stern, thirty-nine, with strands of silver in his wavy dark hair, as emerged as an architect of mature authority.

He has designed and built some seventeen houses and house renovations in Easthampton and Montauk, Long Island; in Greenwich, Greens Farms, and Washington, Connecticut; houses, including the only new town house to be built on Park Avenue in forty years.

Stern is also responsible for fifteen or so major apartment renovations in New York City as well as showrooms for apparel manufacturers. “I had my ‘Mies van der Rohe of Seventh Avenue’ phase,” he notes. And many of his projects have received awards from professional societies as well as the acclaim of constant attention in the press.

His designs express the attitudes of the post Modern period, of which he may be the preeminent spokesman. He creates romantic spaces that are explosions of shapes – curving walls, diagonals, layers of screens with see-through vistas, sculptural cabinetwork lacquered glossy white, and with lights pouring in from overhead, from side ports, from mirrored cutouts and other delightfully unexpected places. His work expresses attitudes of wit and humor, the ambiguity of multiple layers of spaces or stripes, and the acceptance of ornament.

But it is his use of ornament that makes Stern a rather revolutionary post-Modern architect. He decorates with architectural elements – with pilasters and engaged columns, with moldings and aedicules, with Palladian arched windows, Gothic string courses, and Georgian paneling. And Stern adds his interest in art deco – the parallel lines of cutouts, stripes, shelves, and light stripes in straight, curved, or arching shapes. He also makes jokes on the architectural vocabulary of Mies van der Rohe – with pipe-column corners on a shingled building, with moongate shapes, and with what he calls the “shadow-joint capital,” which is a sort of emperor’s new capital.

His work has made him known as an architect concerned with history. And that is also a new concern of younger architects – almost revolutionary after the rejection of history by the Modern movement.

“The shock of having to discover the viability of the old, after a generation of being told that history is bunk, is hitting our profession very hard,” he says. “the tenet of the Modern movement is that history was no longer an issue was clearly ridiculous. You cannot free yourself from history. The Modern movement itself has become historical.”

Not surprisingly, architect Stern was interested in history before he began to rifle it for architectural ornamentation. He majored in American history at Columbia University, where he received his B.A. in 1960, before going to Yale, where he graduated with a master’s degree in architecture in 1965. Then he returned to New York, where he was born and brought up, and developed a program of exhibitions for the Architectural League of New York. There the version of “40 Under 40” had its unveiling in 1966; it was current history of the most up-to-date vision – as his architecture, writing, and teaching has been ever since.

His favorite eras for design inspiration are art deco, Santa Barbara Spanish, the shingle style of around 1900, the Viennese secession style (as carried out by Frank Lloyd Wright), and the works of Sir Edwin Lutyens, to whom he was introduced by Robert Venturi.

Before starting his own practice in 1969 with Yale classmate John Hagmann (who has since formed his own firm), Robert Stern worked for architect Richard Meier and served on the Mayor’s Task Force on Urban Design, chaired by William Paley, that produced the report called “The Threatened City.” Then he worked for two and a half years with the city’s Housing & Development Administration, where he exercised his “dedication to domestic habituation at all scales.”

About that time he published the first of his influential books – New Directions in American Architecture, which has just appeared in a second edition. He lectures on these ideas across the country and teaches at Columbia University as well as at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. In one Easthampton living room, built in an old shingled carriage house, architect Stern has added white curved pilasters and wide paneling, small paned windows and cream-colored (rather than modern white) walls. Another house is painted bright yellow on t he outside with a white molding strung out across the front – like white sugar decoration on a lemon-iced cake.

That sort of simile is the kind of architectural communication that Stern and a number of his contemporaries feel is important for architecture today. They think that kind of simile indicates that the architecture is saying something to people. The fact that what inspired the designed was the yellow-and-white painted archbishops’ palaces in southern Germany of the late eighteenth century bothers him not a bit. Cake-like or palace-like, he feels, t is better that the architecture evoke some kind of response from the viewer than that it make no connection at all. “All architecture says something,” Stern asserts. “It all achieves a meaning, whether architect intends it to have a meaning or not.”

When architect Stern designs a front door for a house in Connecticut, therefore, he makes a porch, at least in one instance, of Doric columns with a broken pediment of shingles in which there is an arched window reminiscent of Palladio. Stern believes that people can understand what that porch is all about.

“Most people have an expectation of a Connecticut house,” he explains. “It is built up from exposure to history books, mass media, and ads. If you are going to do Christmas in Connecticut, you need Barbara Stanwyck and you need that Connecticut house.” Robert Stern tries to give people that. And in that way, he communicates, or says “Connecticut house” to them.

So the words communication, language, meaning, messages, and scenario crop up frequently in Stern’s conversations about architecture. “I believe that buildings have assigned meanings,” he says, “and that the culture assigns meanings to buildings. It is the short happy journey from the Bauhaus to Bloomingdale’s. Whereas the Bauhaus attached a great moral fervor to making products in relation to a brave new world of technology, now we can go into Bloomingdale’s and buy them and they are simply glittering objects for coffee tables of dining rooms. The Breur cane chair has become an object that means a certain elegance and ‘a modern note,’ to quote a magazine. Breuer had in mind the exploration of steel technology – an elegant cantilevered chair as a new way of supporting the human body. But our culture has assigned it another meaning today.

“I am pleased when my buildings look like something else, remind you of something else,” he concludes. “I like it if all my images are strong enough. All the ads for aspirin pills and department stores are also interested in that, because that is what they keep using as backgrounds. And they keep calling me up to ask if they can shoot commercials in our house backgrounds. So I must be into some responsive situation there.”


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