Robert A.M. Stern, part 2
Stern’s presumptuousness may owe something to the huge attention and acclaim that attended upon 15 Central Park West, the luxury condo he designed for the Zeckendorf Brothers. Based on classic prewar apartment buildings by Rosario Candela, the project is probably the biggest real estate phenomenon New York has ever seen. Quarterly New York real estate reports had to be adjusted to factor out the distorting influence of its astronomical sales. The website Curbed took to calling it the “limestone Jesus”. At a time when New York developers were finally hiring serious architects like Richard Meier and Jean Nouvel to generate appeal, 15 CPW might have been seen as the ultimate vindication for architecture’s claims to create value. For architects who take their profession seriously, though, it was disappointing that what made the project so successful wasn’t the kind of quality that imagination can make out of thin air, but Stern’s accurate sense of what investment bankers want, and how many times over the building’s limestone cladding paid for itself.
For a Vanity Fair article on 15 Central Park West, Stern posed atop its concierge desk, weakly mimicking the classic image of an urbanely macho Robert Moses poised on an I-beam over the East River. Stern shares Moses’ ego, if not his public mission, a distinction emphasized by this photo’s gated setting. What lies beyond is for the privileged few.
Arnold Newman’s 1959 photo serves as the cover for Robert Moses and the Modern City. Moses famously said “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” Unlike Stern’s, his omelets were for everyone’s consumption. What lies beyond is a public realm.
The normally balanced architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote two glowing reviews of 15 Central Park West. His 2007 New Yorker piece, “Past Perfect”, pauses just long enough to ask, is ”costume-drama luxury the best that our new century has to offer?” before getting back to the building’s “exquisitely crafted marble trim.” His 2008 Vanity Fair review, “The King of Central Park West”, is likewise awestruck save for two sentences that find the building’s exterior somewhat severe and its base less articulated than those of its neighbors. Both pieces bristle with celebrity names and dollar signs.
Stern’s enormous output fills many 9-pound books dedicated to his bland, pretty buildings for rich people. The sheer proliferation of his easily turned-out product becomes a concern when it spreads to the public urban realm as a sort of invasive species, climbing like kudzu up the side of the Woolworth Building or choking out the native specimens of a historic New Haven neighborhood.
A chummy interview of Stern by Goldberger is included in Robert A.M. Stern: Buildings & Projects 2004-2009. Like Stern, Goldberger graduated from Yale and has taught there. Stern’s career is bound up in Yale, where as a student he formed lasting relationships with faculty members Vincent Scully and Philip Johnson.
Stern helped Scully research his 1962 book on Louis I. Kahn, the first book-length study of the architect, who also taught at Yale. Scully wrote of Kahn that he “had worked himself back to a point where he could begin to design architecture afresh, literally from the ground up, accepting no preconceptions, fashions or habits of design without questioning them profoundly. That ‘great event,’ so rare and precious in human history, when things were about to begin anew almost as if no things had ever been before, was on the way.” If Stern ever read the book he helped Scully research, it had no effect on him.
Kahn said architecture began “when the walls parted and the columns became.” He preferred the bluntness of Paestum’s ruins to the elegance of the Parthenon, finding them closer to the source of architecure’s power. Architects like Stern see the past as something to be copied, often for easy profit, and as proof that the best that architecture has to offer is behind us. Their successive re-issues carry architecture ever farther from its generating force and original vitality.
Kahn’s interest in the past is seen by some as making way for the postmodernism that Stern would pursue with such commercial success. In fact, Stern’s approach to design may best be defined in contrast to Kahn’s. Where Kahn finds inspiration in the past, Stern finds a crutch. Kahn’s Art Gallery was the first building to break from Yale’s neo-Gothic style. In 2006, Vincent Scully called the newly restored Art Gallery ”our first modern building and our best.” Nearly sixty years later, Stern is designing Yale’s two new residential colleges in neo-Gothic style. If Stern stands for anything, it’s the end of architectural history, as of the 1920s.
Kahn rejected the easy road of imitation and visual charm. In projects like the Salk Institute, he invested new forms with primitive power and timelessness. In a world dominated by business as usual, few opportunities exist for the creation of architecture on this level. Kahn’s commitment to it accounts for his relatively small output. Yale twice gave him the opportunity to build.
In his extraordinary 2003 documentary, My Architect, Kahn’s son Nathaniel searches for his father – who died in 1974 when Nathaniel was 11 – among the buildings he left and the memories of those who knew him. Interviewed for the film, Stern tries to bring Kahn down to his own level, telling Nathaniel, ”Don’t put him up on some gigantic pedestal. . . Don’t think that he was always trying to be a prince. He was very much trying to be a player. He wanted work, he wanted recognition. . . He was success-oriented.” When Nathaniel asks, “Doesn’t every architect?” Stern replies, “I can’t speak for every architect.” Nathaniel continues in voice-over that Kahn was half a million dollars in debt when he died, and that of all his projects, only the Salk Institute made money. Kahn was known to continue developing designs well after the likelihood of their realization or his payment for them had passed. An architect who worked for Kahn, William Huff, remembers him turning down a prospective client who wanted a colonial house designed, and suggesting Thomas Jefferson when she asked him to recommend a colonial architect. In a few years, Stern would have fit her bill. Twenty-eight years ago in the Journal New Society, Reyner Banham described Stern’s ”complete lack of scruple that enables him to perform equally well in any style (or caricature thereof) that the market will bear.”
What would Kahn make of Stern today? Of seeing Stern’s status as Yale’s Dean of Architecture used to hawk ten million dollar tract mansions in the sales material for Villanova Heights, the Riverdale development of Stern’s 10,000 to 15,000 square foot traditionally styled luxury homes? As quoted in Carter Wiseman’s 2007 book, Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style, William Huff says that Kahn “saw institutions as the important entities of man’s cooperative interactions,” and “loved Yale, where he found greatness as an institutional awareness – more so than his own alma mater,” the University of Pennsylvania. Yale gave Kahn his first and last major commissions, for its Art Gallery extension and its Museum of British Art, and can claim much of the credit for creating his career. At the end of My Architect, in Kahn’s Dhaka National Assembly Building, the architect Shamsul Wares movingly tells Nathaniel Kahn what an impossible gift his father had made to the poorest country in the world, for the asking. Kahn, he says, ”has given us the institution for Democracy”. Yale can take some of the credit for this. It’s hard to believe this great institution can’t find an engaged, pluralist dean for its school of architecture who wouldn’t be so venal as to trade on its name, or use it to endorse self-serving preservation offenses. Stern seems a vestige of yesterday’s world of self indulgence and unsustainable consumption, of Bush era deception and arrogance. Goldberger’s 15 Central Park West pieces summon up the ghost of Herbert Muschamp, who in 1988 excoriated the previous boom’s architects for abandoning social responsibility to become ”Satan’s decorators” and “hired flunkies”.
Last year, Stern published The Philip Johnson Tapes, a book collecting his 1985 interviews of his teacher and “great friend”. In it, Johnson says of Kahn, “I liked his work better than I liked him. . . . I never found him the great lovely guru-type. I couldn’t stand all those long monologues about belief in truth. I can’t stand truth. It gets so boring, you know, like social responsibility.” Stern seems a bit bored by truth himself, letting Johnson turn questions about his fascist-leaning past into opportunities for lengthy self justification and whitewashing of his personal history into that of a “violent philo-Semite.” Stern doesn’t even call Johnson on this unreconstructed view of Germany in the 1930s: “I mean, Germany was being run down by the rich. The German Workers Party was the only solution. He [Hitler] was a magnetic, shall we say, speaker.” Instead of asking Johnson just who he means by “the rich” or what Hitler had to say that attracted him, Stern responds, “Of course”. It would take Michael Sorkin’s 1988 Spy exposé, “Where Was Philip?” to make Johnson eventually acknowledge and apologize for his early anti-Semitism.
Johnson famously said ”architects are pretty much high-class whores” and often boasted that he’d design for Stalin if the price were right. In his biography of Johnson, Franz Schulze says that he often called Stern “the best student I ever had.” Given Stern’s record, it’s hard not to take those words in the worst possible way. Asked in an Architect magazine interview whether the Presidential Center commission was a tacit endorsement of Bush’s policies, Stern squirmingly said, “Look, I’m an architect, not a political commentator. Last time I checked, he was the twice-elected president of the United States. Even if it is controversial, we still need to preserve the papers of a twice-elected president. . . . And remember that most presidents are controversial and unpopular at times, but each of these people is the president, and each deserves a library.” Then asked whether he’s been looking at presidential library precedents, Stern cites Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s as the most moving, before adding, ”He was also controversial during his presidency.” In Stern’s Magic Kingdom, Bush may someday rank with Roosevelt. Maybe once they find the weapons of mass destruction.
Groundbreaking for the Bush Presidential Center is scheduled for late next year. Saddam Hussein’s gun will be displayed there and is expected to be a major attraction.
(Groundbreaking for Kahn’s Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park is planned for next month. Kahn completed its design shortly before his death 35 years ago. It will stand on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, across the East River from the United Nations, an institution FDR named. The project was kept alive and and will be executed largely through the effort of architects who revere Kahn.)