Robert A.M. Stern, part 1
A rendering shows the main entrance of Robert A.M. Stern’s George W. Bush Presidential Center. “I’m not considered avant-garde because I’m not avant-garde,” Stern says, “but there is a parallel world out there – of excellence.”
Earlier this month Robert A.M. Stern presented his preliminary design of the the Bush Library. Stern has just the right attributes to be his fellow Yale alum’s architect: conservativism’s DNA-inscribed commitment to tradition, and an inability to refuse any commission, no matter how unsavory. His building is the backward-gazing counterpart to the Polshek Partnership’s bridge-to-tomorrow Clinton Library.
A muddled Bush Presidential Center is revealed in this model view. Stern’s design calls for red brick and limestone facing.
The project will be built on the Campus of Dallas’s Southern Methodist University, where some faculty have objected to association with ”a pre-emptive war based on false premises” and “a legacy of massive violence, destruction, and death . . . in dismissal of broad international opinion.” The Center comes to SMU attached to the “Freedom Institute”, a conservative think tank the presence of which has further angered faculty. As reported in the New York Times Magazine, “Everything about the planned institute reminds them of what they detested about the Bush administration. It will proselytize rather than explore: a letter sent to universities bidding for the Bush center stipulated that the institute would, among other things, ‘further the domestic and international goals of the Bush administration.’ ”
For Stern, the Library commission came as his profile reached dizzying new heights, primarily because of the phenomenal commercial success of his luxury condominium design for 15 Central Park West. The development’s sales were enough to skew Manhattan real estate statistics for months on end. In 2008 he was also awarded the Vincent Scully Prize, named for his old teacher, by the National Building Museum. In December of 2007, the New York Times published a highly flattering appraisal of his turn as Dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, in which Reed Kroloff is quoted to say, “Bob Stern may be the best school of architecture dean in the United States.”
A standard reference among preservationists, Stern’s unparalleled five volume study of New York architectural history bolsters his reputation as a scholar.
It was Kroloff who had famously called Stern “the suede-loafered sultan of suburban retrotecture” in a 1998 Architecture magazine editorial about his appointment. The Times piece plays up this turnabout, but in fact Kroloff’s loafer throwing had been a preamble to support for Yale’s decision; his 1998 piece went on to say of Stern, ”he is a teacher, scholar, and practitioner whose passion for and dedication to architecture are beyond question.” Kroloff also accurately predicted that Stern would be “smart enough not to try imposing an esthetic agenda on a school that has always valued pluralism.” While Stern’s architecture gets little critical respect, his dedication and scholarship have indeed long been viewed as unassailable. Several of his recent projects, however, have seriously hurt his reputation among preservationists.
Yale’s Hammond Hall has stood since 1904. While a study found that it could be easily adapted to new use, the much loved Beaux Arts building is one of a dozen to be razed for Stern’s new dormitories.
Stern’s designs for two new Yale dormitory complexes have particularly rankled preservationists this summer. The New Haven Preservation Trust and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation unsuccessfully petitioned Yale to save seven historic buildings that are in the path of Stern’s plans. Characteristically, his new gothic buildings will substitute false antiquity for the real thing, an approach that’s oblivious to both preservation principals and sustainability. Stern’s dismissal of what is authentic in favor of make-believe meshes nicely with his past service on the Disney Company’s board of directors.
The just-completed Superior Ink Condominium
On West Street in Greenwich Village, Stern’s Superior Ink Condominium would be entitled to its name had it adapted or added onto the original 1919 Superior Ink Building rather than razing it. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation had unsuccessfully lobbied the Landmarks Preservation Commission to extend the Greenwich Village Historic District to include the old building, which it viewed as a rare remaining trace of its neighborhood’s industrial past. While demolition of an older building to make way for a larger new one is business as usual in New York, Stern’s replacement is distinguished by how much it looks like an escapee from one of the postmodern development ghettos just across the Hudson. Meanwhile, not far up the old working waterfront from Superior Ink, the High Line Park is a glowing example of what imagination can make of a modest industrial relic, while preserving a neighborhood’s unique sense of place.
In October of 2007, the Related Companies ran an 8-page ad in the New York Times Magazine dedicated to Stern and his luxury condominium towers, including The Harrison on Manahattan’s Upper West Side. In 2006, the facade of Manhattan’s historic Dakota Stable building had its ornamental details jackhammered off by dark of night to keep it from being landmarked, clearing the way for sale of the property to Related and construction of The Harrison. Stern had developed a fullblown design for the condo before the Dakota Stable was defaced.
On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, preservation groups that had welcomed Stern’s efforts to protect 2 Columbus Circle were reportedly shocked to learn that he had kept them in the dark about his client Related’s intention to demolish the historic Dakota Stable. Even as they lobbied the Landmarks Commission to protect the building, Stern was designing its replacement, yet another bland luxury condo. While in contract to sell the Stable to Related, its owner rushed to deface it – literally by dark of night – as soon as the Landmarks Commission signalled an intent to designate the building. The strategy succeeded in preventing landmark designation and protection. Stern is quoted in the New York Times as saying that the nighttime demolition created “a controversial and awkward moment”, adding “I don’t like to tear anything down if I don’t have to.”
Stern’s design for a hotel and condominium at 99 Church Street, center, would share a block with – and tower over – the Woolworth Building, at right. His involvement in the project proves that to Stern, no building is so great that one of his own isn’t better.
Stern has proven quite capable of doing harm without tearing anything down. His 912 foot tower design for 99 Church Street, currently on hold, would overshadow the 792 foot Woolworth Building, one of the most significant buildings in skyscraper history. As David Dunlap wrote in the New York Times, “the Woolworth Building, already hemmed in by the new 58-story Barclay Tower across Barclay Street, will never soar the same.” Unlike Costas Kondylis, the Barclay Tower’s designer and Trump house-architect, Stern sets great store by historic sensitivity. His office’s website proclaims that “our firm’s practice is premised on the belief that the public is entitled to buildings that do not, by their very being, threaten the aesthetic and cultural values of the buildings around them,” and speaks of “entering into a dialogue with the past and with the spirit of the places in which we build.”
Stanford White envisioned his Gould Memorial Library as the centerpiece of NYU’s north campus. Stern had other ideas.
In another exception to this credo, Stern exploited his academic credentials to convince bureaucrats at the City University of New York that the original master plan for Bronx Community College (historically NYU’s North Campus) was the work of Frederick Law Olmsted and that the scene-stealing placement of his outscaled new building there was foreordained by no less an authority. The resulting location of Stern’s North Instructional Building and Library, now under construction, negates Stanford White’s campus master plan. It leaves White’s Gould Memorial Library off-center on what can no longer be called its historic quad, to share prominence with Stern’s new building. Having staked out such an important location for himself, and at such cost to a nationally significant site, Stern anticlimactically gave CUNY a scaled-up rough copy of Henri Labrouste’s Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve rather than making good with a worthy original design. The result is a building that acknowledges neither its classroom component nor a site that’s radically different from the Bibliotheque’s. Stern is quoted in the 2007 Timespiece saying his buildings are “recollective and reinterpretations” and that “the history of art is full of interpretations of things that went before.” Going light on the reinterpretation can be a real work saver, too. continued