After four prolific decades, Robert A. M. Stern still has strong opinions about architecture-and the work to back it up
By Michael Calderone | Photography by Naila Ruechel
On a recent April morning, Stern was seated in his Chelsea studio, impeccably dressed in a dark blue pinstripe suit, accentuated with a canary yellow handkerchief and matching socks. With architectural tomes and glossy magazines cluttered nearby, Stern moved forward, his round, tortoise shell frames perched on his nose, and offered his thoughts on the discipline.
“There are two kind of architects, to be blunt about it,” said Stern. “Some do the same kind of building everywhere, which is their signature. And then there is my approach, which is to try and identify on every sight, in every place, some special characteristics.”
At 67-years-old, Stern shows no signs of tempering his opinions-or slowing down. That’s not surprising, considering the many hats he currently wears: overseeing a highly successful, 260-person firm in Manhattan, completing a second term at Yale, writing books, giving lectures, visiting work sites, and simply sketching his newest ideas.
Although Stern joked that he lives “on the Metro North or the airplane,” the architect actually enjoys a few choice properties: The Chatham on the Upper East Side (which he designed), a duplex loft in New Haven (two blocks from Yale’s architecture school), and a summer home in East Hampton (that he swears he can’t find time to really enjoy).
But Stern, bursting with energy on the day of this interview, finds no fault in not getting enough rest. “All architects that I know are moving around a lot, maybe too much,” said Stern. “It’s not desirable to be an architect working in one little corner of the world.”
Despite the hectic travel schedule, Stern remains, unquestionably, a New Yorker at heart, “a Brooklyn boy,” as he likes to say. Raised in the Flatbush section of the borough near Prospect Park, Stern said he would have never imagined that the old neighborhood would become so hip. Now, he said about half of his trendy young staffers probably live in Brooklyn.
Academically, the young architect was a standout, receiving degrees from both Columbia University and Yale, the latter where he was mentored by the renowned Vincent Scully. Then, graduating in 1965, one of Stern’s first jobs was as a junior designer in the studio of another up-and-coming architect: Richard Meier!
Since branching out on his own 38 years ago, Stern has embarked on one of the most prolific-and varied-careers in contemporary architecture. His firm’s projects have included a Federal Courthouse in Virginia, buildings at Harvard and University of Virginia, and numerous luxury condominiums, such as 10 Rittenhouse Square, overlooking historic Philadelphia. Not to mention, Stern has designed quite a bit for The Walt Disney Company, including the master plan for its town, Celebration, Florida, and the 16,000 square-foot Colorado home of former Disney chief, Michael Eisner.
In a world where newer is often deemed better, Stern has had his share of detractors over the years, those individuals impressed by the endless supply of sleek, glass towers, rather than time-tested, traditional glamour. But that doesn’t bother Stern in the least.
“Other architects are into making independent, iconic buildings,” said Stern. “Sometimes they fit in, and sometimes they stand out too much. The real problem with many iconic buildings lined up in a row is whether the place looks like a zoo of architecture, rather than a city.”
Throughout his career, Stern has been able to keep ego in check when designing, thinking more about the surrounding area than creating a building that awkwardly calls attention to itself.