The architect Robert A.M. Stern occupies a physically impossible position in his profession. As the widely respected dean of the Yale School of Architecture, he sits atop an academic world that treats his buildings with condescension, which means that the people who look up to him also look down on him at the same time. A typical remark, from Alexander Gorlin, one of Stern’s former students and principal of his own firm: “A whole article just about Bob Stern? Does he merit that?” Stern has been called the Martha Stewart of architecture, a comparison suggesting that he’s selling a lifestyle rather than making art.
If you’ve ever walked by one of his New York buildings—and chances are you have; there are several dozen—it may have flitted across your consciousness like a pleasant memory, leaving a dusting of good feeling that’s hard to place. His architecture doesn’t evoke a wow so much as an mmm. Instead of indulging in outrageous height, bendy walls, or glittering façades, Stern beguiles with details: the interplay of pale limestone and black steel, a subtle setback toward the top of a tower, a pattern of bricks fanning out above a shallow arch. These brushstrokes accumulate into a patina of understated opulence—one that many architects find hopelessly passé. “Oh, he’s good with detail,” a colleague acknowledges in a tone that is meant to sound backhanded, sort of like saying that a novelist is adept at punctuation.
At 74, Stern has been batting away spitballs for decades, and he seems to enjoy the sport. As the architect of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, he earned the scorn of left-leaning colleagues who think nothing of working for repressive regimes in Asia and the Middle East. In the nineties, his association with the Walt Disney Company, including a master plan he co-developed for its built-from-scratch town of Celebration, Florida, triggered all sorts of jokes about Mickey Mouse architecture—until Frank Gehry completed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, giving the brand a fresh reputation for adventure. High-modern snobbishness has ebbed a bit, but younger architects still pronounce his name with a hint of condescension, leaning slightly on those courtly middle initials, as if they stood for some obscure vice. (Actually, they stand for Arthur Morton.) Press them about what lies behind the smirk, though, and they start hedging furiously. No sooner have they finished accusing him of playing around with fusty classicism while the rest of the world has moved on than they realize that the austere glass box is just as archaic.
Compact, wiry, and Brooklyn-born, Stern is a cranky optimist with an acid wit. “My colleagues feel architecture should reflect the complexity of the world,” he says, his reedy voice buzzing with scorn. “And it’s always a negative complexity. I think you can celebrate a better world.”
You can tell something about an architecture firm’s aspirations by what the staff is wearing. Corporate firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill dress their architects like bankers; in the more cerebral and adventurous studios, scruffy junior associates could be mistaken for dog walkers. At Robert A.M. Stern Architects’ West 34th Street offices, the look is tailored and elegant. Some of the 285 employees evidently try to meet the boss’s sartorial standards, but he’s tough to compete with. On this day, he’s wearing a bespoke blue suit, chocolate-brown suede loafers, lemon-yellow socks, and a matching pocket square. He briskly leads the way up the stairs to his rooftop aerie, where he and his writing team have just produced Paradise Planned, a massive history of the garden suburb that comes out next month. It’s vintage Stern, contrarian and sweeping: At a time when it’s fashionable to give the suburbs up for dead, he puts out an exhaustive ode to the bucolic enclave. That has always been Stern’s strength. He’s so old-fashioned that he’s practically countercultural.
From the terrace of this peak-roofed penthouse retreat, Stern can survey the vast site of Hudson Yards, where he will almost surely be designing several residential buildings. He can also keep an eye on his High Line–hugging condo tower at 500 West 30th Street, which is under construction. His eye drifts to the new West Side, a crop of ungainly skyscrapers with delusions of sleekness. “They all want to be about the future, but of course they’re stuck in the moment,” he says.
Stern was an early adherent of postmodernism, which held that rather than attempting to invent an aesthetic from scratch, architects should dip back into the generous well of history. “The present, interacting with memories of the past, can create something that can be interesting in the future,” he recapitulates. This was an easily perverted idea. Some postmodernists, like Michael Graves, winkingly mashed up historical references and blew up pediments to cartoon proportions. Others hewed slavishly to Jeffersonian neoclassicism. Stern does something different: He adorns his buildings with the architectural equivalent of footnotes. The new library for the Bronx Community College cites Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Ste.–Geneviève in Paris, the greatest of the big public research libraries, not just to flaunt a historical model but because Stern wanted students in the Bronx to bathe in Parisian grandeur. “If you walk into that library, and you think, This is what it’s like to be at Yale or at Harvard!, I think I’ve done something good for people. I’ve shown the respect of the body politic as a whole to their needs and their efforts to improve their lives.”