Robert A. M. Stern and Paul Goldberger: A Conversation
PAUL GOLDBERGER: Bob, forty years of practice is an extraordinary thing, all the more because you continue at such a rapid pace. I remember the office over the storefront on West Seventy-second Street, which was probably smaller than your reception area is right now. Let me first ask you if there’s anything you miss from those early days when it was a kind of office on a shoestring.
ROBERT A. M. STERN: “Office on a shoestring” sums it up perfectly. 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 or telephone call as it were. And the very close camaraderie of a few people. But there is no question that a larger office—and I’m not sure how much larger “larger” should really be—provides one with all kinds of other things and a more solid professionalism. You avoid some of the horrible mistakes that many small practices make, both technical errors in execution of the work and mistakes in terms of how to position the firm and how to write a contract and a hundred other things.
I was thinking of that, actually, as I was waiting for your arrival. Of course, it was much nicer in some ways when it was smaller and I knew everybody. And I knew them warts and all, and they knew me warts and all. Now I think they know me warts and all and I’m not sure I know them.
But there are people in our practice today who don’t go back to day one but do go back to say, day three. People who have been here thirty years or more and are now partners, and we have a close camaraderie. But of course, many others who came to the practice have become partners and associates as well.
PG: It is remarkable, though, that there are some people who really spent their entire careers here.
RS: I’m always disappointed when people leave. But I recognize that for some people, for many people, it’s a good thing to do. Find their own way. Sometimes people don’t work better in a different environment than the one they’re leaving, but they think it’s going to be better, that the grass will be greener. Sometimes, they think they’re going to be able to do it on their own, and they suddenly discover that independent practice is not for everyone or not for them. Some chose to return to the nest. But we’ve spawned a lot of firms.
PG: You know, for a while, it seemed right to compare Robert A. M. Stern Architects to a practice like Delano & Aldrich or John Russell Pope or James Gamble Rogers, great eclectic firms of the 1920s, ’30s, and so forth.
But given that they were less concerned about formal innovation than they were about careful, conscientious re-use of historical form and given the sheer volume of work you now have, larger than any of those firms, I think even in their heyday, I wonder to whom would you want to be compared, ideally?
RS: There were no really large firms in the time of the architects you mentioned, to my knowledge. None that was very large. McKim, Mead & White and Daniel Burnham set the model, but it was just the model for big practice, not the reality. It’s only since the founding of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in the late 1930s and after that the large firm taking on many different kinds of work began to emerge.
I like to think that we are able to compete with different firms for different kinds of work, that we can compete with a KPF or a Skidmore for a corporate project and other firms for other kinds of work. Maybe we’re sui generis, egomaniac though such a claim might be.
PG: We all know you are sui generis, so the question is therefore, perhaps the firm also is?
RS: We run our practice differently. First of all, we run side by side with certain partners who are doing the kind of work we did twenty, twenty-five years ago, relatively small scale, and other partners who are running large projects. And in between are the institutional projects, which tend to be a bit of one and the other.
But we have people who move around in the practice from one kind of work to the other. And I think people enjoy not doing the same kind of project over and over again year in and year out. People who might not want to be specialists, but would rather be generalists. And that’s the way I think we are.
One thing that’s different from any other firm you might compare us with: we have always kept ourselves to one office. The condensed energy of this place—the bumping into each other in the halls and on the stairways and so forth, of the people who are all really involved in the projects—is an essential ingredient in our ability to work together successfully.
PG: So you prefer the challenge of airplane travel to the sacrifices one makes having branch offices.
RS: Yes—especially now that I get my partners to travel.
PG: How do you keep quality up at this volume?
RS: My job in the office—certainly in the last ten or so—maybe fifteen years—has been to set the agenda for projects and then be the quality control. We’ll go this way; we’ll go that way. We’ll look at this set of alternatives or that. A design direction for a project emerges under my leadership and once that happens, my job is to see to its nurturing and to its survival in the rough-and-tumble of budgets, value engineering, and construction. I constantly meet with the architects working on our projects which are in intensive design development. As they move to the next stages, we meet less frequently as more technical issues come on board, but whenever there’s a decision that involves a significant intersection between idea and realization, then these projects are brought back to me. I think I can say that I am ultimately responsible for what we do, good or bad.
PG: You set each project’s initial design direction.
RS: Yes. Usually I sit down with a partner and other key people. I’ve done it collaboratively since the day John Hagmann and I started. The notion that an architect locks himself in his closet, so to speak, and invents a project is, I think, a foolish one and not operative for me. Not operative for most people.
PG: Let’s talk about the role of history today: how does one justify doing work that is so reliant on historical precedent in the twenty-first century? Is that different from doing so in the twentieth century? Or if it was justifiable in the twentieth, is there any reason it should be any different in the twenty-first?
RS: I don’t see how any art can proceed—I regard architecture as an art—without climbing on the shoulders of what went before it. The modernist argument may have provided a necessary tonic to do some house-cleaning almost a hundred years ago. But 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.
I think that all architecture comes from what went before. And how carefully one hews to precedent or how many liberties one takes, in my view, is part of a larger set of judgments as to what is, or could be called, “appropriate.” Appropriate from every point of view, especially from the site, the cultural expectations of a community and of the specific client. It’s not a matter of what mood I’m in that morning or which book happened to land on my desk that afternoon.
. . .
PG: Let’s move back more definitively towards your built work as opposed to the work in teaching. A few minutes ago, you brought up Comcast and Fifteen Central Park West together. It’s a fascinating comparison, because as you pointed out, they’re both large scale projects, both done at more or less the same time, and I would guess neither could have taken quite its form had it been done by some other hand. In other words, each has something to market as a Stern project, and yet they’re very, very different. Can we talk a little bit about all that those projects mean?
RS: We went through many schemes leading to Comcast. The project began in 2000 as a developer-driven speculative tower. And then the disasters of the dot.com collapse, and then 9/11/2001, halted the scheme. It then went forward in fits and starts with different agendas. But when it once got going seriously with the expectation that a very high-tech company, Comcast, would be its principal tenant, it became clear that the building had to embody the culture of modernity, especially that of electronic communication.
How do you do that? Well, make it very modern in materials, and make it as environmentally responsible as possible. The opinions of many to the contrary, I have nothing against glass buildings and have explored their possibilities when appropriate in the past. I did propose, you may recall, in the second Chicago Tribune competition (1980) an all glass building but I gave it a classical shape, that of a column in keeping with a narrative that had to do with newspapers. Now, that was done for polemical purposes. But it was not uninfluential, I would argue.
PG: It was around the time of Philip’s PPG building,5 was it not, which was a gothic shape in glass.
RS: I don’t know which preceded which. But that’s not important, except to say that the material glass is no more or no less a viable material to me than any other. The materiality of a building affects shape, but not always. In Philadelphia, the most significant formal concern was not with material expression but with context. The task was to deal with the skyline that had grown up almost overnight in the late 1980s in the wake of the second Tribune competition with what I would say are some very ambitious buildings, some high-striving skyline buildings, but all rather fat in their cross sections. Buildings that aspired to the slender profile of the Chrysler Building but ended up rather differently. So at the many design meetings I had with our client, I kept arguing for something very, very simple. Paring it back and making it a simple shape like a tapered obelisk, and even resisting the introduction of what many obelisks, I suppose, have, which is a pyramidal top.
Why resist the pyramidal top? In part because it’s very difficult technically to ventilate such a top. And for another reason, I just thought cutting the building off, leaving the suggestion of the pyramid off the top might be more interesting.
Then, working with Nancy Rosen, our art consultant on the project and others, we set out to find the right public art for the lobby. Art had to be in the building. And I thought that Jonathan Borofsky’s piece, as soon as I saw his proposal for it, was just brilliant. I think that brings people into dialogue with the building in a way that public art should but very seldom does. It’s not some abstract piece planted on a plaza, but a witty celebration of the monumentally scaled winter garden.
And then the last thing was someone—it was not my idea, but I embraced it instantly and pushed it along as fast and as forward as I could—someone said, “How about a video wall?” And we had the idea of working with David Niles to make a wall that would just have continual video, taking advantage of the most advanced technology that one associates with a company like Comcast.
It’s amazing: the whole back wall of the lobby—which can be seen all the way from the street across the plaza. In daylight, it’s that bright. For twelve hours a day, it projects an endless program; there are repetitions, but sequence of events that is constantly being reprogrammed. And it’s not advertising. It is that idea that Venturi has of electronic decoration on the wall of the building. It is not a substitute for the architecture; it is decoration. And it’s not commercial. There was much discussion about that, but I argued that the wall not be an extension of the Comcast brand but instead should be just a fantastic thing the Comcast company gives to the world.
Brian Roberts [CEO of Comcast] got into it and went the whole nine yards. The most amazing thing about it: the digital machinery has to rest every so often. And when it rests, it projects an image that matches exactly the wood paneling that clads the rest of the lobby’s walls. So you could walk in there and just see paneling—and all of the sudden, it goes away. Electronics and architecture as one.