Alexandra Lange | Essays

Want to Make an Architect Cry?

Give him (or her, but she’s less likely to mind) Robert A. M. Stern’s latest monograph, which, at 600+ pages, covers just his last five years of work. Five. It is really a flabbergasting number of buildings, boom years or no boom years, and that after 40 years of practice. (Full disclosure: Bob Stern sent me this book as a gift, since I have been on his mailing list ever since I wrote a semi-snarky profile of him in New York Magazine — apparently not online — upon his appointment as dean of the Yale School of Architecture. This post is by no means looking a gift horse in the mouth. He got me back in his latest New York architecture tome.)

Since this is the sixth volume published of Stern’s work (a number rivaled, among living architects, only by Richard Meier and Renzo Piano), he does not indulge in retrospective images. It would have been fun to include a photo of his first houses, mentioned in passing in his introductory “conversation” with Paul Goldberger.

What one does miss, of course, from when one is brand new in practice, is the thrill of the first or the second or the third commission…

How long ago that must seem to him. I remember one early house in particular, maybe published in Vincent Scully’s Shingle Style Today, which is indeed covered in shingles, and has a long gable roof, but muddies the waters with a switchback entrance and asymmetrical windows. This is where Bob Stern came from, the adolescent postmodernism of Venturi et. al. The suavity, the symmetry, the luxury came later. I can’t support what Stern does, I am too much of a modernist for that, but I can report that he does it the best. If you are going to remake the past, at least do it with the correct proportions, quality materials, and a sense of the variation within a style. Perhaps because of these awkward early years, by and large, he does.

What’s more interesting now, after 40 years, is the way his own history is catching up to him. Modernism is now a historic, post-modernized by many unawares. As Stern correctly says

…modernism has become a style and an ideology. In fact we now live in a period of revived modernism in which architecture students and young practitioners are doing things that make me smile. I mean, I wouldn’t be as blatantly devoted to some of my precedents as they seem to be to Case Study houses in California.

In his design for the George W. Bush Presidential Center Stern seems to be quoting those early years, the dawning of questions even in the mind of Philip Johnson about the rightness of the glass box for everything. Could Stern’s practice begin to include a certain neo-neo-classicism? Could he bring the Lincoln Center marble palace back, just as Diller Scofidio + Renfro deconstruct it? Or begin to steal work from the Meiers and the Pianos through sheer force of charm and competence? Signs of this possibility in the recent book include Northrup Hall, at Trinity University in San Antonio, and the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska. He practically says it himself.

Yes, but there is nothing wrong if you set out to make a copy. If you can make a really good copy, you’re a pretty good architect in my opinion. Most architects can’t do it. “Eyes that do not see,” Le Corbusier said; they can’t make a good copy.

That’s the way to disarm your critics.

Posted in: Architecture, Media

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