The Real Deal New York

WATCH: Inside the workshop of Robert A.M. Stern Architects

How does one of the world's most admired architecture firms approach its work?

September 19, 2016 07:00AM
By Alistair Gardiner

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Speaking in the first person is taboo at Robert A.M. Stern Architects. When discussing the design process, architects at the firm will constantly use the refrain: “So, that’s very important to us.” It’s an element of the hive mind philosophy that leaps out when touring the firm’s Far West Side workshop.

After a stint under Richard Meier,  Robert A.M. Stern founded his own firm in 1969 with a partner, John Hagmann. In 1977, he struck out on his own to start RAMSA, now a 325-person shop with projects such as the “Limestone Jesus” at 15 Central Park West, Superior Ink and Philadelphia’s Comcast Center. The firm’s current projects in New York include 70 Vestry Street for the Related Companies, and 30 Park Place for Silverstein Properties.

The Real Deal visited on a typical, noisy weekday: The space was littered with sketches, models, renderings and images used for research and various tools of design. Dividers separated the open space into individual meeting rooms for various groups (the firm can be working on more than 100 projects simultaneously). Scattered around were photographs of arches, rough ink sketches of facades, lumps of clay and cans of diet coke (the fuel of choice for the entire company, according to Whalen). Amid the chaos, employees don jackets and ties.

“There’s sort of two sides to how an architect’s mind works,” said Paul Whalen, a partner who’s been at the firm since 1981. “One side is having a good eye and the other side is being able to be analytical. Some people aren’t necessarily brilliant designers, but they’re brilliant problem-solvers. And they can be a really important part of the process in a big firm like this.”

Partners at RAMSA say they look at their projects as a bridge between the past and the present day. This idea applies to both the elements of a building and its relationship to its surroundings. Their central goal is one of assimilation, of acknowledging and building upon traditions and styles, whilst simultaneously embracing new technique and tastes. Grandeur is embraced, but it’s couched in the quiet humility of homogeneity.

RAMSA has always attracted criticism for what some see as a lofty dedication to classical architecture. In an era where the term “starchitect” is attached only to the iconoclast, Stern buildings can even seem drab. At RAMSA, however, conformity is in fact the point.

The firm’s design philosophy was explained in detail by three of the firm’s partners: Paul Whalen, Daniel Lobitz and Michael Jones. Using sketches, renderings and models from all the different stages of research, study and design, the trio described how three current projects came to fruition. In designing a building or a master plan, every aspect is initially subject to rigorous research, from the shape and size of the building to the design of the window frames. Inspiration can come from anywhere, including specific urban planners, theater sets, or even Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. The relationship of differing scales is examined from every angle, and the intricacies of crafting a top or placing set-backs are studied scrupulously.

“We like to feel that we’ve been able to create a building that feels timeless, that feels like it fits in, but makes its own statement,” said Dan Lobitz, who joined the firm in 1986. “So it’s a building of today, but growing out of the ideas of the place and the past.”

For an in-depth look into the working process of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, watch the above video.

(Video produced by Alistair Gardiner. Reporting by E.B. Solomont. Editing by Hiten Samtani and Kerry Barger)

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