Stern and colleagues look over the model for the Yale Residential Colleges

Blueprint for a starchitect

Robert A. M. Stern’s approach to designing buildings combines exuberance with historicism


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I first met Robert A. M. Stern in the late 1980s, when I was finishing my book The American Country House. Some of my American friends refused to believe that even during the Gilded Age such an undemocratic domestic tradition of architecture had existed in the Land of the Free. Not Bob. He had studied them; he was building them himself. He asked me to write an introduction to a book of his own works. I declined, explaining that I’d have to visit the different properties to describe them which would clearly be impossible, given that they were scattered throughout the more affluent parts of the United States.

Stern’s 520 Park Avenue in Lenox Hill, New York City

He looked at me in horror and disbelief, raging, “how can you be so culturally insular?” He would get me there; he would make sure I saw everything. The result was an itinerary that shuttled me from the eastern tip of Long Island to the snows of Colorado, from New Jersey’s Ritzier estates to Desert Island, Maine. Last stop was Disneyworld, Florida, for the opening of a hotel he had designed — a night of razzamatazz, fireworks and dancing. 

It was in many ways an education. When I turned up at his office to begin the tour, he took one look at my suitcase and said: “What’s that? Get rid of it.” In my British way, I’d packed everything from heavy winter coat to Panama hat to cope with the different temperatures I’d encounter. Bob would only go with me if I took just cabin luggage. Too impatient to wait at a carousel, he explained how the trip would work. “You’ll go from air-conditioned airport to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned house.” That was America. That was Bob.

The book came out as The American Houses of Robert A.M. Stern in 1991. At that time, Stern had designed no house beyond the shores of the US, but the “American” in the title was appropriate, for these houses had many specifically national characteristics. They were located within a tradition, belonging to the country in which they were built. At a time when most architects subscribed to the International Style, which maintained that the principles of Modernism were universally applicable, so that a high rise in Tokyo need look no different from one in Madrid, this made Stern’s work stand out. 

It was the antithesis of the suburban norm and he loved it

Boundlessly energetic, formidably well-read, a major force in academe and the starchitect at the head of the large and highly successful firm of Robert A.M.Stern Architects, Stern has spent his life dismantling the intellectual apparatus of the Modern movement, with its belief that technology rather than people should dictate the appearance of human surroundings. The hundreds of buildings for which Stern has been responsible throughout his long career — court houses, hotels, film studios, apartment buildings, libraries, museums, colleges, offices — show that there is another way. We should all be grateful for it.

Now Stern has published an autobiography Between Memory and Invention, describing, in the words of the subtitle, his “Journey in Architecture”. The story is as American as his houses. Here was a Jewish boy from Flat Bush in Brooklyn, whose father’s businesses serially failed, leaving his mother to make up the family income by working in a department store. She took the ten-year-old Bob to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Marcel Breuer had built a wedge-shaped house with split-level interior and much glass as a temporary exhibit in the gardens. It was the antithesis of the suburban norm and he loved it. 

Robert Stern

This epiphany was followed, in Stern’s teenage years, by a detailed exploration of the architecture of New York, which would blossom, at the end of the twentieth century, into a series of monumental volumes recording the City’s architectural evolution, decade by decade, from 1880. 

More immediately, his intellect got him into Columbia (he is still “pissed” to have been rejected by Harvard), followed by graduate school at Yale. At Yale, Stern’s intelligence, ambition and self-confessed chutzpah could hardly go unnoticed by the faculty, which was led by the architect Paul Rudolph and, just as important, contained the historians of American architecture Henry Russell Hitchcock and Vincent Scully. 

Stern was already struggling to break with the rigid orthodoxies of Modernism. In this he was not alone. Where his intellectual analysis went further than others was in identifying the rootstock onto which it was possible to graft a new architecture, expressing continuity with the past but up-to-date in terms of construction and luxury.

In Britain, where Modernism was even more monolithic than in the US, rebellion against the prevailing dogma would take the form of a Classical Revival. A few urban extensions aside, this has generally been somewhat limited in scope, its tweedy practitioners tend to specialise in the design of country houses. 

Stern’s liking for being in the swim began at Yale, where Olympian architect Philip Johnson suggested that he should take the lease of a brownstone townhouse, then vacant, that a distillery heiress had purchased when she was studying there. “Philip, I’m a scholarship student,” Stern replied. But he took it anyway, sleeping in a bed designed by Mies van der Rohe and subletting the other rooms to friends. 

Graduation was followed by a glitzy phase, in which he honeymooned in Europe (his first visit), bought suits from the tailor named in the fiction of Ian Fleming (“being a less-than-tall person, I had trouble buying off the rack”) and had a house at East Hampton, whose stairs were hung with a vinyl covering by Roy Lichtenstein (originally the wrong way up). 

With his then wife, whose family owned a department store, he moved in a smart set, some of whose members became clients. He was designing sleek houses, whose references to the past added chic. One was clad in the shingles of the eponymous Shingle Style of America’s late-nineteenth century resorts, another had a cheeky Tudor drip mould over the front door — the sort of detail that was heresy to older architects and many young ones. But as he approached 40, at the end of the 1970s, he was concerned to find there had as yet been only three major commissions.

Stern has hauled it back onto the old course

It was then that his career transformed itself. While others may have invented the term Post-Modernist, Stern could claim that he had encountered it years before, in writing a thesis, later a book, about George Howe — an architect whose career had taken an opposite trajectory from his own, since he began as the creator of romantic Normandy manor house-like estates on the Philadelphia Main Line, a style that he abandoned on conversion to Modernism. 

Architects of the Modern movement had sought to deny the past, which had been made irrelevant by the potentialities of the steel-frame and plate glass. But by 1980, obsessively rectilinear, ornament-free Modernism was discredited, the leaders of a new generation of architects impishly applying flagrantly historical references to their work. The so-called “Chippendale Building” — a New York skyscraper at 550 Madison Avenue— was given a broken pediment on top, renouncing the Modernist ideals to which its architect, Philip Johnson, had previously adhered. 

Stern wanted to reintegrate contemporary architecture with the Western tradition as it had evolved since the Middle Ages. Looking back, Post-Modernism was over-hyped. But it was a phase, necessary in signalling that the Modernist ice sheet had cracked. 

Stern, however, stayed the course. The Po-Mo visual jokes went (unless he was designing for Disney). In their place emerged, over time, a style that was no consistent style, because each project took its keynote from what had gone before — a museum at a university would be collegiate Gothic, the new Atlanta court house is neo-Classical, an apartment block in New York will allude to the early days of the skyscraper, when architects were attempting to accommodate the demands of the new building type to a training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

“Architecture is a profession, an art, but most of all, an obsession”  

Stern’s approach is demonstrated in the two residential quadrangles — Benjamin Franklin College and Pauli Murray College — at Yale, opened in 2017. Until the Second World War, Yale adhered demurely to the collegiate Gothic idiom that formed the house style of Ivy League universities. Then, from the 1950s, it let its hair down and went Brutalist and experimental. Stern has hauled it back onto the old course: the many-tiered somewhat Hawksmoor-like tower that rises over the Pauli Murray College (right) echoes the fretted silhouette of the Harkness Tower, built a century before. 

Of course, nobody knows the tradition of Yale architecture better than Stern — he was Dean of Architecture there from 1998 to 2016. He informed himself with equal rigour about the local architecture of wherever has been asked to build around the world, be it Spanish Baroque for the Pasadena Police Headquarters or Art Deco for Disney. The Mexx International headquarters (above) at Voorschoten in the Netherlands creates a false history for what had been an old silver factory, with an atrium inspired by Dutch Expressionism of the 1920s. 

Strangely, Britain, where Modernism was so deeply engrained, remained impervious to Stern’s line of ballsy exuberance, tempered by erudite historicism until as recently as last year, when construction began on Audley Square House. This replaces a car park on South Audley Street in London with a symmetrical, pedimented block with limestone facades, whose detail is derived from the surroundings. Its five townhouses and three penthouses are claimed to be the most expensive real estate in the British capital. 

Audley Square House in London’s Mayfair

This suave essay in what might be called the Mayfair Style replaces an aggressive scheme by Foster + Partners, which did nothing to respect its neighbours and was dropped. The victory suggests the extent of Robert A.M. Stern Associates’ reach and influence. It is a practice from which, at the age of 83, Stern is now officially retired, although he still attends design meetings and weighty books from his pen appear with bewildering frequency. As he once wrote, “Architecture is a profession, an art, but most of all, an obsession.” Feeding the obsession called upon heroic levels of energy, for the architectural battles have not ceased. His conversation — sharp, funny, authoritative — keeps everyone on their toes.

During the Covid pandemic, this man who, above all others, thrives on gregarious human contact, spent the whole time self-isolated in his Upper East Side apartment, voraciously devouring books. He has now emerged. When he recently invited me for dinner at the Knickerbocker Club — he admires its architecture: Delano and Aldridge, 1915 — it was only his third outing. 

We began with a powerful Martini and I thought the evening went pretty well, until he got into his cab to go home and I thanked him for a brilliant occasion. “Perhaps not brilliant enough,” he replied. Pure Bob.

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