An evening with Robert A.M. Stern: “I’m not Picasso, but I’m not that far away”

Architect behind 15 CPW, 70 Vestry on NYC's zoning, his design philosophy & more

TRD New York /
Mar.March 17, 2017 03:30 PM

Robert A.M. Stern is a fan of buildings that rise like wedding cakes. If he had his way, towers would still be designed in this fashion, gradually slinking away from the street to abide by a 100-year-old law.

“It was the first, and it was the best,” the septuagenarian architect said of the city’s 1916 zoning law.

It’s not necessarily a surprising opinion from an architect with a fetish for limestone and a polite distaste for glass. Stern spoke at the home of The Real Deal publisher Amir Korangy on Thursday night and praised the often derided setback rules that shaped buildings like the Walker Tower (formerly known as the New York Telephone building at 212 West 18th Street).

More than 50 architects, developers and other real estate professionals gathered to listen to Stern, including Don Peebles, Adam Rose, Edward Baquero, Dottie Herman, Leonard Steinberg, Shaun Osher, Faith Hope Consolo and Kathy Sloane. Previous speakers at the event have included the likes of Bjarke Ingels, Liz Diller and Chad Oppenheim.

Stern is perhaps best known for his design of 15 Central Park West, the tower completed for the Zeckendorfs in 2008. The project, nicknamed the “Limestone Jesus,” is the most successful condominium in New York’s history. Stern considers himself a modern traditionalist, which he defined as taking cues from historical architecture while including the technologies of today. An example of this, he said, was Silverstein Properties’ 30 Park Place, which was his homage to One Wall Street.

“In the world of painting, many many artists get high praise for reinterpreting artists from before,” he said, sipping on a dirty martini with a twist and sporting his trademark yellow socks. “Picasso reinterpreted many artists from before. I’m not Picasso, but I’m not that far away.”

Even glass buildings are often derived from styles from the past, he said.

“They are not that modern. They are just aggressive,” he said.

Stone and other materials evoke a sense of “permanence,” he said, citing the balconies on 220 Central Park South.

“If you just do a glass box, there’s no opportunity for that,” he said.

He said 15 CPW was one of the riskiest buildings constructed between 2000 to 2010 because it used material that was out of vogue on the priciest property in Manhattan at the time – nearly $800 a foot for the site. The Zeckendorfs, he said, agonized over whether to use brick or stone on the building’s facade.

“Total risk. The standard procedure was to build a glass building,” he said. “Making a risky building doesn’t necessarily mean making a whacko building.”

Stern said he likes to “dip into” every project, but that all work at his 300-plus person firm is collaborative.

“If you go to a meeting with your architect, and he or she is the only one in the room, get rid of that architect,” he said.

When asked about retirement, Stern quoted General Douglas MacArthur.

“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” he said. “I’m not in my fade-away phase yet.”

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