The Real Deal New York

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Robert A.M. Stern

By Candace Taylor

Robert A.M. Stern is dean of the Yale School of Architecture in New Haven, Conn., and founder of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, where he personally directs each project. The firm designed 15 Central Park West, the limestone condominium where total sales topped $2 billion, making it the most successful apartment building in the world. It also recently designed the Superior Ink Condominiums on West 12th Street in Manhattan and is now designing Philadelphia’s Comcast Center and two new residential colleges at Yale University. A specialist in New York City’s architecture and urbanism, Stern is the author of numerous books on the subject, including “New York 1880” and “New York 2000.”

What is your full name?
Robert A.M. Stern. That’s how I like to be known.

What is your date of birth?
I was born in 1939.

Where did you grow up?
Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Where do you live now?
Manhattan. I live in a building that we designed, the Chatham, so that’s nice. I rent a loft in New Haven, and I have a weekend house in East Hampton.

Where do you spend most of your time?                          
I just go back and forth between New York and New Haven.

Which architects have inspired you?                              
Paul Rudolph was my teacher. I learned a tremendous amount from him. Robert Venturi was a teacher and mentor. Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry and Eero Saarinen … I’ve learned from so many. Sometimes I learn what to do and sometimes I learn what not to do.

Which buildings do you admire in New York City?
There are many that I admire, but the nice thing about New York City is the space, the places between the buildings. There are many cities that you go to where you see a few buildings and you take your snapshots and you leave. But in New York, it’s not the experience of the buildings, it’s the experience of the spaces and places that they make.

Were you surprised at how much attention 15 Central Park West received?
Well, pleasantly surprised. I would have been even more surprised if it hadn’t gotten attention because in my immodest way I do think it’s a very beautiful building. And of course the public spaces within the building, the lobbies, the private dining room, the health club and all of that are pretty swell.

Why did you use limestone instead of brick?
Limestone takes the light very beautifully. A glass building may reflect the light at certain times, but oftentimes it just swallows it up and doesn’t give much back. With a limestone building, whether it’s sunny or cloudy, the building glows.

How do you feel about the retail in the building? For example, there’s a Best Buy at 15 Central Park West.
Well, it’s Broadway. The way we designed the retail is totally related to Broadway and the character of Broadway, though the detail of shop fronts is very fine. I’ve never been in a Best Buy; it looks nice to me. Every shop in New York cannot be Tiffany’s.

When did you know you wanted to be an architect?
I kind of announced it when I was 13, 14, something like that. I always was busy playing with blocks, making drawings of hypothetical cities.

How do you feel about the term “starchitect”?
That architects have been given some kind of star status is nice. On the other hand, I don’t think architects should be celebrated like movie stars. We’re much more interesting than movie stars and much more important, and what we do is much more enduring. If you don’t like the movie you’re watching, you can turn it off or walk out of the theater or fall asleep. I do all of those things. But if it’s a building and it’s across the street from your window and it’s an abomination, what are you going to do about it? Not much.

Do you get recognized while walking down the street?
People do recognize some of us, but I don’t think they’re confusing me with Brad Pitt.

How do you relax in your free time?
First of all, you’re deciding that I have free time. I’ve spent my entire life trying to not have free time. When I’m not in the office I like to work on my writing. I like to travel, not for work but for pleasure. That’s my greatest recreation.

What are some of your favorite places to travel?
London is a favorite. Paris is great, but my French is so terrible that I always feel I’m not getting the maximum out of it. Rome, I don’t have any Italian so I blunder along in complete happy pleasure. This summer I’m going to Vienna. I haven’t been there in 10 years. It’s kind of on my B-list.

Tell me about your offices [at 460 West 34th Street]?
This is an industrial building on the West Side, built for the printing trades. It has high ceilings, big, muscular columns, and it’s flooded with light on all sides. We keep it very open. There’s virtually no office with a door.

Including yours?
Definitely not. People usually walk through. I don’t mind that, and I don’t like to pick up a phone and call. My preferred method of communication is a very refined shout. What do people do in offices [with doors]? They close the door and fall asleep or talk to their girlfriends.

Why don’t you have a computer?
I don’t even know how to turn a computer on and I don’t want to. I use pen and paper, tracing paper, make sketches. That’s the way I work.

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