On November 13, 2017, legendary architect Robert A.M. Stern was presented the Design Futures Council (DFC) Lifetime Achievement Award for 2017. Only three other architects had previously been recognized with the award: Art Gensler, founder of Gensler; Gene Kohn, cofounder of KPF; and Norman Foster, founder of Foster + Partners. The award was conferred at the DFC’s Leadership Summit on the Business of Design, which was held at the Harvard Club of New York.
Rather than give an acceptance speech, Bob Stern elected to sit down with DesignIntelligence to discuss lessons he learned through a lifetime in professional practice and education.
DesignIntelligence (DI): You’ve had a long and extremely distinguished career, and you’ve seen a lot of changes in the profession over that time. What are some of the bigger changes you’ve seen, and what do you foresee happening in the years to come?
Robert Stern (RS): I steadfastly avoid predicting the future, because the future is always so different from what we imagine at any given moment. When I was an architecture student in the early 1960s, Paul Rudolph was the design chairman of the architecture program at Yale. He was already a star at the time, but he would meet with us informally, and he would talk about practice, because we were all interested in it. And he said, “You know, the ideal office is 30 to 35 people. Just perfect—you can control everything.”
By the end of his longish life, I’m sure he came to regret that decision because nobody gave anybody who had a 35-person office any work of a substantial large-scale nature. Although I do think that could change, maybe it is changing because of technology where you can associate with architects elsewhere and maintain a kind of “boutique” practice. We maintain a “boutique” practice of about 265 people.
In my early days in private practice, I thought that I would do little nice houses in New Canaan or if I wasn’t that lucky, houses in Weston or someplace like that. And maybe a little library, maybe a little school, a K through eight, or whatever. That’s not the way practice was by the time I left school. We went to New York. I was in a totally different environment, designing the world. I’d been waiting for that opportunity to come by the second time, but we were totally unprepared for it. In other words, architecture, in the late 1950s and early 1960s was all about little suburban houses.
DI: Your first commission was a house, wasn’t it?
RS: I still do houses. They’re not little, and they’re not suburban, but they are still houses. And houses are wonderful, but really the thrust of our work is the larger scale projects, internationally. Who would imagine a little boy from Yale doing buildings in China and Europe and everywhere?
And there was Norman Foster, who was a post-professional student with Richard Rogers at Yale for a year at a strategic moment. We were all amazed by Norman. He was so good. He was so articulate. He led his whole class. When he and Rogers had projects, Foster made the presentations. But even then, who would imagine that he would be building these huge projects? So, the world has changed dramatically, and the future could never have been predicted the way it has come out based on what we knew in 1965, the year I graduated.
DI: What are some of the challenges the profession has overcome—problems we’ve solved—and things that you think we still need to address?
RS: Well, the profession has largely overcome Walter Gropius. That was the first thing, and his lack of interest in history, in his dogged pursuit of what he called “functionalism,” which was really not so functional. It really crippled American architects for a very long time. He produced brilliant designers: Philip Johnson, Eliot Noyes, and more. But they all rebelled against him, and it’s okay to rebel against your teachers.
Gropius talked about collaboration. I give him credit for that. It took a long time until that really became part of the architectural DNA. We have a much more collaborative environment now. I think you’ll find that faculty are encouraging collaboration and students are demanding to know how to go about it.
We could bring up the computer, which has changed the way we produce technical documents. I still think the discipline of the right angle and the discipline of what we would call classical training is very, very important. I think the discipline of urbanism is important. Many new buildings are very interesting shapes if you’re interested in that. But they’re terrible on the street, where pedestrians walk.
We were introduced to the idea of urbanism back in Paul Rudolph’s time. Rudolph had spent a year traveling all through Europe on a Wheelwright Fellowship from Harvard. It was mind-blowing for him. I don’t think our students today have the patience—or their parents won’t let them—to spend a year, just going around, drawing, taking photographs, sitting in cafes, watching people on the street …
Rudolph and a lot of his generation did that, and I think they were better urbanists in many ways than many of the younger architects are today.
DI: When you think back to the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit at MOMA, and the incredible, evocative power of those drawings and their ability to express subtleties, do you think the computer gets in the way of that?
RS: For many students, it does get in the way. At Yale we try to emphasize hand drawing. We’ve been very lucky to have donors who have endowed a whole summer in Rome, just to do drawings. They pay for the airfare, put them up in student accommodations, and give them a spending stipend. All that is asked of these students is that they put their cameras to the side and draw these buildings. Lou Kahn, Ed Stone—any architect of the generation I admire—they did that as well.
A lot of the young architects around the country don’t do that. Architects should give money to their schools to make sure students go abroad, not to do a project they could do back at home, but to go and look around under the guidance of brilliant teachers.
In our office we have a gallery where we have three exhibitions a year. They are based on freehand drawings that people in the office have made either in connection with their work as designers on projects, or just going out around the city or wherever they go.
And the other side of it … When I began to teach at Yale, as at Columbia where I’d been before, professional practice was optional. Can you imagine that? Crazy. So, I said to Phil Bernstein, “You have to teach this as a required class.”
Many people thought it was the end of the school and that the artistic side was going down the toilet, but we got over that. But now, students love professional practice maybe too much. They call it “pro-pac,” and they’re very interested.
DI: How have clients changed over the course of your career?
RS: I think clients are smarter.
DI: Are they?
RS: I really do. The Zeckendorf family were smart clients, and they still are. But there weren’t many developers who had an enlightened view about the buildings in the city. But today if you work with Steve Ross of Related, he knows what he has to do. I worked for a long time with The Walt Disney Company, which was a major developer in the ’80s. They understood what their obligations were to the public. Other developers here in New York, or Gerald Hines out of Houston, are amazing. Those people didn’t exist in 1965—so that’s a dramatic change.
DI: But now enhancing the public realm is assumed to be part of the job.
RS: You have to do public things. Not only just a few artworks on the wall; you have to have significant public space. It has to be programmed. You have to build it in, bringing in certain kinds of events over the calendar year. When I was a student the developer was not the client. It was the corporation. You worked for IBM or Connecticut General Life Insurance or General Motors. The developer is our current client. What will happen in the future? I don’t know.
DI: As the Dean at Yale, your job was to prepare the next generation design leaders to take their place and advance the profession. What are some of the leadership qualities that you try to instill in that next generation that would enable them to be really great designers?
RS: I don’t know that we can help them become great designers. Only God can do that.
It has been a long tradition at Yale—and I was only carrying it forward—to bring great practicing architects into the studios. When I became the dean, the school was quite sleepy—I’ll admit to that, and they’d admit to it as well. So, who were my first significant hires? Philip Johnson and Peter Eisenman.
All of the people who are teaching in studios should have a foot deep into practice, so they bring the professional experience of the office to the school. But they have to have something else. They can’t just run their studios as though they were telling people what to do in the office.
Frankly, I think too many offices run without much reference to an academic model. I have to some degree organized my office on the model of an architecture school. We have a gallery of drawings. We have studios. If you come to our office, there are only two private offices, one of which belongs to the CFO because he manages the books, and a COO who runs the place. But everything else is completely open.
DI: If you could give a gift to the next generation of design thinkers, what would you give them or tell them or show them?
RS: I didn’t do anything I tell students now to do. I didn’t start out working for an established architecture firm, which is how I advise students to start today. Philip Johnson said, “You have to do something for the Architectural League of New York.” I said, “Philip, shouldn’t I work for an office?” He said, “What do you want to do that for? I never did that.”
But I think today, because practice is so complicated, younger architects really should work for big firms. They have to know when either to see that they’re rising in the firm, and being given and taking responsibility, or to try to do something else.
I think that that’s a big problem of many young architects today. They set up their own practices and they don’t really have much of an idea of how to run an office. They don’t know how to talk to a client. You have to talk to clients. You have to not only market a job, you have to know how to keep it.
DI: Is it fair to say that as you look forward, you’re fundamentally an optimist about where we are headed as a profession?
RS: If you’re an architect, and you’re not an optimist, give up. You have to be an optimist. You have to assume that tomorrow, when you go to your office, there will still be clients and better still, a new client.
DI: If you could choose your next client, and your next project, anything in your imagination, what would you do?
RS: I have no idea. I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve had a pretty good run of different kinds of clients. But if somebody wants to ask me to do a building of a type that I’ve already done, I’m interested in doing it. I like to do buildings. That’s what I do. And when I get up in the morning, I think of buildings. When I have sleepless nights, which is often, I think of buildings. Some people play golf. I think about buildings.
DI: I think Philip Johnson was once asked a similar question: what is your favorite project? And he always said, “The next one.”
RS: And Philip Johnson was asked once, “What’s your definition of a great building?” He said, “One that makes you say ‘Wow!’”
Robert A.M. Stern is the founding partner of Robert A.M. Stern Architects.