by Zohra KhanMay 24, 2022
As he proudly mentions towards the end of his latest book, Between Memory and Invention, New York architect Robert (Bob) Stern is sometimes labeled the Ralph Lauren of architecture, a sign that his work - at once traditional and modern, and aimed at achieving a timeless quality - has become a popular brand. The architect’s luxury houses, as well as residential, cultural, and university buildings that are typically composed of a mixture of vernacular and classical elements, consistently attract wealthy individuals, prominent companies, and institutions around the world. But the hefty 520-page, richly illustrated volume published last month by Monacelli Press is only partly devoted to the architect’s projects, which are described in detail in many other books that his office has been producing quite systematically over the course of several decades. Between Memory and Invention is not merely Stern’s personal story of becoming a successful architect, which is, of course, fascinating in itself, as his busy practice on Park Avenue in the heart of Manhattan employs more than 200 architects. But what is particularly valuable here is the first-hand chronicle of numerous events, projects, initiatives, and personalities, absolutely pivotal in the development of architectural culture, starting from the mid-20th century to now, primarily in America, but also in other parts of the world. The list of both friends and frenemies, as Stern calls some of his colleagues, is very long. The book tells plenty of intimate and vital details about the characters and visions of critical figures such as architects Paul Rudolph, Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, James Stirling, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Cesar Pelli, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Stanley Tigerman, Charles Gwathmey, and Léon Krier. Historians and critics include Vincent Scully, Ada Louise Huxtable, Charles Jencks, Kenneth Frampton, and Suzanne Stephens. Stern’s clientele is as illustrious and varies from developers Gerald Hines, Donald Trump, Stephen Ross, Larry Silverstein, and the Zeckendorf brothers to Michael Eisner of Disney, and celebrities Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, and Jon Bon Jovi.
Throughout the book, in anticipating a tone full of intriguing peculiarities, we relive initial impressions of Rudolph’s Yale Art & Architecture Building (1958-63). Stern introduces us to his first wife, Lynn Solinger, a granddaughter of the department store magnate Bernard F Gimbel, and to their son Nicholas. We come along to parties at the Glass House with the likes of Andy Warhol. Stern shares his experience of serving as the president of the Architectural League of New York and tells us about his active role in critiquing the New York Five Architects book, and instigating the “Five on Five” or “White and Gray” debate. He points out the significance of Arthur Drexler’s exhibitions at MoMA: The Architecture of École des Beaux-Arts (1975-76), which became “the liberating polemic against the Modern Movement” and Transformations in Modern Architecture (1979). These shows served as preludes to the seminal 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale's La Strada Novissima, a street of 20 storefront-like facades in fashionable Post-Modern style, one of them designed by Stern. There are stories behind Stern’s projects for Disney in America, Europe, and Japan. The author's life is packed with so many memories that working on the George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas takes hardly a few pages and his visits to the White House dinners with American Presidents—Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W Bush—are mentioned only in passing. Then there is Pride of Place: Building the American Dream, an eight-part television series that Stern hosted on PBS in 1986. And what true New Yorker doesn't own a monumental five-volume history of New York with thousands of pages of text and archival photographs?! The series' sixth tome—New York 2020—is to be released next year. Perhaps Stern's biggest achievement is his 18-year deanship at Yale, which, according to Frank Gehry, made it "the most exciting school in the country, maybe in the whole world". What follows is our conversation with Bob Stern over Zoom as we discussed his career, an enthralling path between tradition and modernity.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Can you tell me why you decided to write an autobiography? How long did it take to put it together?
Robert A M Stern (RAMS): It started when a young designer, Patrick Corrigan, suggested that I sit with him for a series of oral history interviews. He had helped Paul Goldberger with research for his book Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry. We started in early 2016, during the last few months of my deanship at Yale. About halfway through 2018, Patrick moved on and Leopoldo Villardi, who had been working with me on my coursework, stepped in to wrap up the interviews. Leo started digging through my archives as well and helped me chart a path forward leading to the book. It has been an interesting experience because I had forgotten so much over the years—Leo was constantly refreshing my memory by reviewing documents and photographs with me, and he interviewed many of my colleagues who had their own recollections to share. He wrote about this process in the book's afterword, as well as online for RAMSA Storyboard.
VB: What about the book’s title: Between Memory and Invention?
RAMS: Although at its core the book is an autobiography, I also trace the evolution of postwar American architecture and that's where the book's title comes in. By reflecting on my own experiences, I make the argument that architecture can go forward by looking back, by learning from the past, which I believe enriches our discipline.
VB: In the book, you describe at length two stylistic transformations that you underwent during your career. As a student of Paul Rudolph at Yale, you were a hardcore modernist, but soon after graduation, you evolved into a Post-Modernist. And in the following decade, you reinvented yourself yet again as a so-called “modern traditionalist".
RAMS: For the most part that’s correct, but I would not say that I was a hardcore modernist in my student years. Of course, my professors at Yale were trained modernists—Rudolph had studied under Walter Gropius at Harvard. Philip Johnson, who was instrumental in bringing stylistic modernism to the United States as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art a decade before he even embarked on his own career as an architect, had also studied at Harvard under Gropius and Marcel Breuer. So, I was certainly influenced by modernism, but by the time I was a student at Yale, Rudolph and Johnson, as well as Vincent Scully, had already started to express doubts about the Harvard approach to modernism, specifically the over-emphasis on functionalism and the de-emphasis of the individual designer. It was not for nothing that Johnson, who was wicked with his words, called Breuer a “peasant mannerist".
VB: It’s true, referring to you as a “hardcore modernist” might be exaggerating a bit—even Rudolph’s Art & Architecture Building at Yale, which alludes to medieval towers, foreshadowed Post-Modernism. Architecture already seemed to be transitioning by then.
RAMS: Absolutely. Look at Rudolph’s Jewett Arts Center at Wellesley College outside of Boston. In its facades and in his drawings, you can literally find traces of the 19th century Parisian architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, or of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Rudolph made it clear in his writings as well as in conversations in the design studio that his one-year travel fellowship to Europe after the Second World War had deeply influenced him. That made him different from many other American architects of his generation, who did not have the same opportunities to travel, even within the United States. It wasn’t until after the war when trans-Atlantic air travel was relatively affordable that many students and architects began to travel and discover European architecture and urbanism. This also helped American architects realise that they tended to obsess over individual object buildings, often at the expense of urban context or the streetscape. These were the discussions that young architects, like Robert Venturi, were instigating in the 1960s when I was a student. And it was through Venturi that I, too, gave that discussion a big shove.
VB: Your Lang House, built in Washington, Connecticut in 1974 and widely published, was one of your earliest confrontations with modernism. Peter Eisenman identified this house as one of your best. What made him say that?
RAMS: I think he said it because it’s true. The Lang House represented a complete break from the modernists’ expectations. Even before the Lang House, I had started experimenting with traditional architecture, particularly my Wiseman House in Montauk, which I finished two years out of architecture school in 1967 (it was my shingle-style take on some of Venturi’s unrealised early projects as well as the house he designed for his mother). However, the Lang House went much further. As you approached the house, its walls stretched to either end to define a kind of entrance piazza, even though it only faced a dirt road. Its bright yellow colour suggested baroque Bavarian architecture, which fit the interests of one of the clients. I extensively used standard decorative mouldings, which came directly from a nearby lumberyard. Nothing could be more ordinary, but the mouldings wrapped around windows in a striking way, referencing ones I had seen at Eton College as well as Venturi’s North Penn Visiting Nurse Association building. The house was also about manipulating the section to balance light—learning from Sir John Soane—and the north elevation bowed toward the valley behind it. But most importantly, it came at the right moment—I had my finger on the pulse.
VB: Your gravitation toward and embrace of Post-Modernism is very clear. Had you begun moving toward what you call “modern traditionalism” by the end of the 1970s?
RAMS: Oh no, I was still a very Postmodern Postmodernist at that time. [Laughs.]
VB: What prompted your second reinvention then?
RAMS: I continued to be steeped in Post-Modernism throughout the 1970s until its zenith around 1980—perhaps best exemplified by La Strada Novissima at the first Venice Architecture Biennale. My work at that time was playful and eclectic—remember that many architects at that time had few commissions. We were still recovering from the Vietnam War, the oil embargo, inflation, and student protests. It was a time of reevaluation. I was exploring the adaptation of traditional architecture, proportion, style, and colour. But at a certain point, Post-Modernism started to devolve into a kind of jokey kitsch. I was certainly guilty of that, as were so many others. But I began to realise that the true value of Post-Modernism was not its stylistic impulse, but rather the enrichment of architectural discourse and practice through deep investigations of the past. In fact, teachers like Rudolph did exactly that at the school when I was his student. He would sit at your desk and refer to architects of previous generations by saying: “You know, Mies would approach it this way. Wright would approach it that way. Or, you could do it like Le Corbusier.” Rudolph would also reference Soane—he frequently visited the Soane house in London where the British architect had amassed an interesting and hugely stimulating collection.
Another contributing factor in my second reinvention was a personal interest in history—I was a history student as an undergraduate—which pushed me to evolve my architecture. And clients, who were often dismissed by modernists, also taught me a lot. Whereas stylistic modernism might have been a fitting expression for office buildings filled with men of no distinction in gray flannel suits, it was not suitable for domestic life. Especially in the 1980s when PBS’s Pride of Place was being filmed and I was traveling all around the United States, I came to appreciate the richness of traditional architecture, and my architectural expression matured.
I should also note that one of the most important aspects of La Strada Novissima—in my view Portoghesi’s greatest achievement—was to revive the idea of the street, which was hated by the modernists. I remember seeing La Strada Novissima assembled for the first time—it was an amazing experience, a little bit like when the film The Wizard of Oz magically transitions from black and white to Technicolor as Dorothy steps into the Emerald City.
VB: Could you elaborate on your phrase, “Architecture is a representational storytelling art”?
RAMS: Modernist architecture was not interested in storytelling, except to celebrate the magnificent culture of technology. But don’t you think that after about two minutes of talking about such things, the conversation turns boring? I think it is much more interesting to tell stories about buildings' clients and their ambitions to use architecture to advance their ideas. We often talk about our projects as being portraits of our clients, rather than self-portraits of the firm. For example, Michael Eisner, when he was the CEO of Disney, gave me very interesting opportunities to design buildings for the company. And what do you design when working for Disney? Storybook architecture. Even after more than 50 years, there is a continuous appeal for it; it resonates with people’s aspirations and dreams. In the end, we build to reify our ideals and perhaps forge some new ones.
VB: In the book, you mention that you frequently reread F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Would you say that the lifestyle depicted in the novel often serves as a kind of model, particularly for your domestic designs?
RAMS: That’s a good question. The lifestyle of East Egg and West Egg in Long Island in the 1920s, of course, served then and continues to serve now as a model for people with money, or for those who dream of having it. Fitzgerald was such a tragic figure because of his early death, his battle with alcoholism, and The Great Gatsby in the end is about the failure of Americans to achieve their dreams. But the life described in those houses influenced me and it still does. There are plenty of people around the world who want to build their own versions. And why not? To me, these houses are about establishing connections with history. So many avant-garde architects are interested in disruption, but I am interested in connections.
VB: Celebration in Florida is an entire town that you designed in a familiar and traditional style, prescribed by strict guidelines. Could you touch on planning it for Disney? Even Ada Louise Huxtable admitted that it was done right.
RAMS: Ada Louise had a terrible time coming to terms with Post-Modernism and the shift in values that many architects embraced in the 1980s and 1990s. But she did, to her credit, admit that Celebration was well done. The idea of Celebration was to show that even at the end of the 20th century, a town could be built to embrace not only the aesthetics that the public admired and preferred, but also to create a functioning townscape with a vibrant mix of programs—a town centre, shopping arcades, walkable streets, and public squares that punctuate the plan. All these strategies have been around and used throughout the 19th and early-20th centuries, but they had been thrown out by modernists. Le Corbusier’s idea of urbanism is absolutely frightening to me. Celebration’s design guidelines set standards for accepted styles, how far buildings had to be set back from the street, the placement of alleys, how to handle cars in a pedestrian-friendly way, and so on. I collaborated for years with my closest and longest friend in architecture, Jaque Robertson (1933-2020), to plan Celebration—and it remains successful to this day.
VB: Let me ask you about your pedagogy at Yale, specifically your idea to introduce diverse points of view by inviting very different architects to teach there.
RAMS: What first attracted me to Yale was its great mixture of design and intellectual ideas - it had never been blinkered by a single ideology. But before I returned to Yale as dean, that tradition had begun to deteriorate - my predecessor was admittedly distracted by his practice. From the very beginning, I invited some of the most improbable people to lecture and teach. Peter Eisenman became a teaching assistant to Philip Johnson—that was pretty good. Deborah Berke, my successor as dean, co-taught with Charles Gwathmey and refreshed his reputation. I invited Frank Gehry, Demetri Porphyrios, Jeanne Gang, Léon Krier, Zaha Hadid, and many, many others. Students realised pretty quickly that I had built an expansive Rolodex over the years. With the help of others, I also raised money to endow visiting professorships and to enable students to travel with some of these architects. For example, students were able to travel with Frank Gehry to visit some of the best concert halls in America and Europe, where he introduced them to world-class conductors - that was a major life-changing opportunity. This isn’t to say that those students are going to go on to become architects of concert halls, but it helps them truly understand the depth of passion and experience that an architect and their client share. When I was a student, speaking of clients was verboten. But as dean, I invited important developers to co-teach advanced studios with architects, and students relished these opportunities.
VB: And finally, I am a big fan of your New York books series. I am eagerly awaiting the sixth volume: New York 2020. Any comments on New York of the 21st century?
RAMS: For a long time, I felt New York 2000 would be the last in the series. But this new century started with great expectations for the city despite the tragic attacks of 9/11, the 2008 economic downturn, and two years of the pandemic. Architecturally, the city opened its doors to international practices, welcomed experimentation, and revived its cultural vitality - not only in Manhattan but in all the boroughs. Brooklyn is going through an amazing rebirth. The waterfronts along Brooklyn and Queens were rediscovered and reimagined. Many great buildings were reused and repurposed. There are many new public parks. The shift from print magazines to digital platforms—with critics, professional and self-declared alike - has opened discourse tremendously, and the public has had these amazing reactions to various projects. Covering it all is quite challenging but also immensely rewarding. Hopefully, the book will be published in a year or so.
Looking back, I am happy that, in a way, I got to do it all. That was something I learned from Philip Johnson—that you can do many different things in life. You can be a curator and writer in the early morning (or on the weekends), an architect and designer throughout the day, and a social phenomenon in the evening. I am still designing buildings. I am still writing books. I am still teaching. But most of all, I am proud that I have been able to reach out to young people and to the public and inspire them about architecture as an expression of life.