Stanford White designed that Bronx campus more than a century ago for NYU, and Stern has returned often to McKim, Mead & White’s moment, one of the last great flourishes of America’s neoclassical tradition before the advent of modernism. He is, in a sense, a 21st-century Stanford White, a traditionalist with a deep understanding of the contemporary metropolis (but without the sex-and-murder scandal). But Stern does not limit himself to graceful monuments. He has designed about 30 projects in New York, most of which stay politely in the back row of any architectural class portrait. One architect, when I mentioned Stern, asked, “Has he done many buildings in New York?” And then, as I listed them, said, “Oh, yes, of course. I know that one,” again and again.
At Yale, Stern has made the school a gathering point for practitioners of radically different persuasions, so it’s not as if he’s opposed to what he calls “me-too” architecture; it’s just that he’s appointed himself the profession’s chief defender of New York’s fragile fabric. While so much new residential architecture has been grinding away at New York’s texture, turning a stone city into a glass metropolis, Stern’s buildings exert a quiet friction against change—or at least against too much cheap change. He has helped shape the city’s constant self-reinvention by championing its glory days. His most famous work, the limestone palazzo at 15 Central Park West, hums with a revivalist Art Deco grandeur. His Superior Ink condominium at the far end of West 12th Street is New York’s handsomest newly built evocation of the industrial past. With its ample factorylike windows and ruddy brick facing and its row of townhouses (each one different) that peels away from the tower’s main bulk, Superior Ink is the kind of building you think you remember from a grittier time, only better. What might have been an ersatz knockoff is instead a thoroughly modern memory of a past that’s quickly being erased.
“My interest is not in being an autobiographical architect but a portraitist of places,” he says. “Other architects put the same building, more or less, in many different locations. And in this age of branding many people are reassured by that. But when clients come to us, they don’t know what the building is going to look like until we study the site and consult our library.”
Though he has worked all over the world, the subject that has absorbed Stern’s attentions most over the course of his career is New York. He and several associates have written a definitive five-volume history of its architecture, and he has learned to appreciate the city’s dense web of precedent, orneriness, and rules. Other architects may chafe at those restrictions; he finds them invigorating. Now he’s trying to export the wisdom they impose.
“There’s a New Yorkiness to our work,” he says, adding that Chinese clients arrive clamoring for it. “I know that, because those who have come to us want things like the buildings we had in the twenties and thirties—buildings that stepped back, that created skyline terraces and strong rooftop silhouettes, that had interesting rhythms of wall and window.” China’s cities have been developing at a frenzied pace, but they lack “the urban vitality that we have on virtually every street, even in the most remote parts of the city: a mixture of uses, a street that’s pedestrian-oriented, a street that encourages neighborliness among people, a street that is in itself a work of architecture. Our buildings try to enforce that model or develop it where it doesn’t exist.”
Peddling a canned version of New York–style urbanism to the Chinese, or designing a piece of deluxe chinoiserie, as he is doing for the Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University in Beijing—these are exactly the kind of practices that drive his high-minded colleagues crazy. “He has no problem thinking about architecture as a high-end service,” complains Amale Andraos, the founder, along with her husband, Dan Wood, of Work Architecture Company. The remark makes Stern’s practice sound vaguely sordid, and she goes on to explain that making the client happy is necessary but not sufficient. “Most architects have an agenda outside of the requirements of the client. That’s the ambition, anyway. If you think of Pritzker Prize winners, they’re supposed to have contributed something to the discipline by moving architecture forward or reinventing some aspect and by having the highest standards and being pure. So could Bob Stern win a Pritzker? Probably not.” Andraos may be right, but that tells you more about the Pritzker than it does about Stern.
To some extent, Stern courts the image of a man who spritzes himself in the morning with a little mist of nostalgia. He doesn’t use a computer (though, of course, his employees do). And he says things like, “You look at buildings now, and you can’t tell whether they’re residential or offices,” in the same tone that his parents might have used in the sixties, saying they couldn’t tell the boys from the girls. Wandering around the studio, I come across a shelf full of elaborately carved moldings—not the kind of samples you tend to see strewn around high-end Manhattan firms. Someone has sprayed the stylized foliage with gold paint, making it look like trim for a Caligula-themed hotel. “We don’t usually do gilt, but we have a Russian client,” an associate remarks.