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Master of Modernity

Robert A. M. Stern leads his firm into the 21st century armed with a strong appreciation of the continuum of past and present, an ethic he brings to controversial and exciting new projects.
By Kim A. O'Connell

On a dark night in November, an intrepid crowd braved fog and rain to ascend the steps of the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC, a Postmodern masterwork designed by Arthur Erickson, to hear the annual lecture by the winner of the Vincent Scully Prize. Conferred by the National Building Museum and named for the beloved Yale University architecture professor, the Scully Prize has been awarded to a diverse list of practitioners and intellectuals – Jane Jacobs, Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Witold Rybczynski among them – since its inception a decade ago. Winners are feted with a gala and award presentation, and they are expected to give a lecture, which is always highly anticipated. The 2008 Scully Prize laureate – a renowned architect, educator and historian – was Robert A. M. Stern, FAIA.

The lecture location proved to be auspicious. Traditionally, the Scully lecture is held in the great hall of the Building Museum, a traditional building notable for its gargantuan interior Corinthian columns. On that November night, however, the museum was preparing to host a summit of the G-20 nations, moving the Scully lecture to the Canadian Embassy. Completed in 1989, the embassy is one of relatively few Washington buildings to successfully and boldly meld Neoclassical and Modernist principles, wrapping traditional elements such as a rotunda and columns in a minimalist aesthetic. Whatever Stern's views on this particular building might be, his career has served as a model for embracing important lessons of the past while remaining open to, and reflective of, one's time.

Taking the podium in a natty suit, melon-colored tie and his trademark yellow socks, Stern focused his lecture on the topic of architectural education. As a longtime teacher who himself studied under Scully, Stern began his remarks with a provocation – asserting that the making of architecture could not, in essence, be taught. Rather, students can only learn what "architecture has been and can be," he said. Architecture is an applied science, he continued, "but it is also an art, an art like no other, a public art, a social art, that carries with it the responsibility of giving physical shape to hopes and dreams for a better life."

It is a responsibility Stern has taken seriously over the course of his illustrious career, which has spanned more than four decades, resulted in the construction and preservation of numerous important buildings, and fostered the minds and hearts of countless students.

Great Accomplishments
During the Scully lecture, Stern took Modernist architects to task for claiming that their worldview was the only one worth emulating. Instead, Stern argued, architects must embrace modernity – the full scope of contemporary life, of which Modernism is a subset and which is not divorced from history. If architecture is to speak to new possibilities, Stern said, "It must revere the principles that underpinned the great accomplishments of the past." He received a standing ovation.

In an interview conducted not long after he accepted the Scully prize, Stern expounded on his remarks and examined his career with characteristic passion, eloquence and wit. (Of his fellow Scully laureates, he quipped, "It's a pretty tasty list, and I'm happy to be another slice of the big club sandwich.") This year marks the 40th anniversary of Stern's architecture firm, which began as Stern & Hagmann (a partnership with a fellow architecture student from Yale, where Stern earned his master of architecture degree; he earned his bachelor's degree at Columbia). He founded the successor firm, Robert A. M. Stern Architects, in 1977, where he still serves as the senior partner. Today, the New York-based firm boasts 300 employees, spanning several disciplines including architecture, landscape architecture, interior design and others.

Completed buildings include the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia; U.S. courthouses in Beckley, WV, Youngstown, OH, and Richmond, VA; hotels for the Walt Disney Company in Orlando, FL; and office buildings in the United States and abroad. The firm served as the co-master planner (with Cooper, Robertson & Partners) of Celebration, FL, the prototypical New Urbanist town. (Stern continues to work to ensure that so-called New Urbanist towns don't in fact contribute to suburban or exurban sprawl.) The firm took the lead in master planning the theater block of New York's 42nd Street, and produced campus plans for several universities including Acadia in Nova Scotia and Georgetown in Washington, DC.

Current or recently completed projects include the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas; 15 Central Park West, a luxury residential building on a full New York City block; the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge, PA; two new residential colleges on the Yale campus; and the 58-story Comcast Center office tower in center-city Philadelphia.

For the past decade, Stern has also served as the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, where Modernists who were initially aghast at the appointment of a purported traditionalist quickly came to respect his leadership. (Frank Gehry, in one notable example, called the architecture program under Stern "probably the most exciting school in the country right now, maybe in the whole world.") Before that, Stern was a professor of architecture and director of the renowned graduate program in historic preservation at Columbia, where he had previously served as the director of its Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture.

"I have many concerns about how we teach architecture," Stern says. "Students are often introduced to architecture as undergraduates when they're barely out of high school. Instead of being trained in a humanistic fashion, in a setting with foreign languages, literatures, a reasonable grasp of the various sciences…we have five-year bachelor of architecture programs, these intense architecture programs, and boom, you're educated. You may have the technical skills of architecture, but you're certainly not educated about architecture in the larger world…As an artist, you must be connected to the world of culture. There are certain schools that swim against this tide and insist that their students of architecture come out of a liberal arts background." Although the schools are different, Stern has found this to be true of both Columbia and Yale. "They are different places, but it's like comparing two very fine restaurants," he says. "You're going to get a good meal."

As for himself, Stern dislikes being labeled either a traditionalist or a Modernist. "I'm operating in the modern world, and the modern world is about multiplicities of directions," he says. "It's fine if one wants to sign on for one or the other direction, but I prefer to address each project in terms of what would be the most appropriate way to approach it. There are young architectural graduates who know nothing about Modernist architects. This is preposterous. You need to know Francesco Borromini, and you need to know Peter Eisenman. I wish we could have a world where you can study with masters who excel in traditional forms and others who excel in Modernist forms." Stern adds, however, that "there's an awful lot of cozy classicism about. Many of the architects who are quite good at classical architecture or traditional architecture have not articulated themselves; they have not pushed themselves into the public debate."

Context and Controversy
Recently, Stern vociferously entered the public debate with his strong support for the preservation of 2 Columbus Circle, New York's West Side "lollipop" building designed by Edward Durell Stone. "Not to preserve the building is shocking; not to hear it is criminal," he famously said when the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission refused to hold a public hearing on the issue. After a long and bitter fight to save it, the building was drastically renovated as the Museum of Arts & Design, which sheathed the old marble façade in an asymmetrical pattern of terra cotta tiles and glass, obliterating the building's original appearance.

Stern joins a chorus of critics of the new building who believe the commission missed a blatant opportunity to save an iconic structure. "I would like to be a nice guy and say that the new skin is nicer than the old, but frankly I don't think so," he says. "We lost a beautiful modern building by an architect who is underappreciated. We got instead a completely arbitrary façade in a dreary material."

Despite this loss, Stern applauds the fact that the field of historic preservation is evolving to include modern buildings. "The preservation movement has come to realize the importance of preserving buildings that older members of the movement saw as the enemy," he says. "Buildings of the modern movement did replace older ones, so people had a deep hatred for glass and steel. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been helpful in identifying modern buildings that are significant, those by Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph, Philip Johnson's Glass House, etc. But the preservation movement has a way to go." Stern, for his part, has carefully overseen the restoration and renovation of the Yale Arts Complex, which includes the Paul Rudolph-designed Art and Architecture building, newly christened Paul Rudolph Hall. Designed by Charles Gwathmey, FAIA, the restored complex now includes a zinc-and-limestone-clad addition housing the university's art history department and an arts library.

"My time at Yale has involved two major initiatives, to reshape the curriculum and to work closely with the president and others at the university on the stewardship of Yale's architecture," Stern says. "We've worked together to see to it that the modern buildings at Yale were done in a way that would be as exemplary as possible. The Yale Arts Complex is an amazing pair of buildings, one very Modernist of our time, and the other a Modernist work of the 1960s, that make strong gestures within the Modernist vocabulary to the traditional stone architecture at Yale."

Stern's firm is now engaged in the design of an addition to a small Victorian Gothic conference center on campus, as well as the two new residential colleges there. Residential colleges form the underpinning of undergraduate education at Yale. Although the university has renovated its existing colleges, many designed in the early 20th century by James Gamble Rogers, the last new colleges were designed by Modernist Eero Saarinen in 1961.

Although some critics have argued that the choice of Stern's firm flies in the face of the university's history of working with more avant-garde architects, university president Richard C. Levin has responded by noting that the new colleges will be built on an awkward lot somewhat apart from campus, making the need for a traditional connection even more important. "Saarinen was trying to bring Modernism quite as close as he dared to the traditional courtyards on campus," Stern says, who adds that he doesn't dislike Saarinen's work. "The new colleges will be as much like the traditional Yale colleges as I can make them."

Similarly, the firm will be considering the context of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, to be located on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, as work proceeds on that project. Although Stern cannot reveal many details, he says that the building will reflect the campus's red-brick and white-stone Georgian character, but it will not be a Georgian building.

One of the more controversial new projects by Stern's firm is the new Comcast Center in downtown Philadelphia, now the city's tallest building. It is a 975-ft. faceted obelisk, clad in a gleaming, silvery, energy-efficient glass with ultra-clear, low-iron glass at the building's corners and crown. The center encompasses a half-acre plaza that straddles the underground tracks and concourse of Suburban Station, Philadelphia's primary commuter rail terminal. A public winter garden connects the concourse to the tower and plaza overhead. The building is expected to be certified under the LEED green-building system. Although the building is undoubtedly modern – the Philadelphia Inquirer called its terraced and notched rectangular crown a "giant USB memory stick" – it is also meant to complement the skyline and not draw attention to itself as anything but a good, solid design, well executed.

"I'm not a fan of buildings with too much wiggling," Stern says. "My belief was that the Comcast Center should be a very simple, purely shaped design. It's important as an icon on the skyline, and it sits above a railroad station and makes important connections to the concourse underground. Beyond that was the opportunity to place the building on an open plaza [designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin, FASLA]. It's on a street that was laid out in the 1930s with a uniform cornice, and it's a very dull street. Our plaza opens the street up. We have been able to relieve the center city of Philadelphia with a public place."

Whether they are talking about the Comcast Center or the Yale residential colleges, critics are often quick to place Stern and his colleagues in the camp of traditionalism or Modernism (or Postmodernism, more likely). This kind of labeling, in Stern's eyes, is overly facile and detracts from the more profound discussion of place-making and how buildings must serve and reflect human needs and desires. As he said on that rainy night in November, "We must help today's students to explore the seemingly contradictory points of view of tradition and modernity, and to see them not as contradictory choices but as profound, reasoned, and parallel ways to shape the world." TB

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