How Robert AM Stern Resurrected Architectural History
This article was originally published on Common Edge.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, I was lucky enough to get a summer job with Robert AM Stern while I was at graduate school. Stern’s new memoir, Between Memory and Invention: My Journey in Architecture (MonacelliPress, 2022), has prompted my own mini-memoir, with some relevant details not included in the book.
I arrived at the office in the early summer, not long after the dissolution of Stern & Hagmann and then Bob’s divorce. I found two young architects-to-be, a sweet but disorganized secretary-receptionist-bookkeeper, and Bob. The office grew during the summer and beyond—and today there are over 200 in the office, including 16 partners in Robert AM Stern Architects (aka RAMSA).
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Bob taught at Columbia then. His studio for juniors was known as the most demanding undergraduate course at the university. I believe he was the youngest faculty member to receive tenure at Columbia. Perhaps the tenure story is only a rumor, but the stories about his studio were true. When checking the facts for this piece, I found that at the time, students published an unofficial Columbia course guide with grades for every class. The grading scale went from 1 (hardest) to 5 (easiest), and the guide gave Bob’s junior studio a score of -2, the only course to get a negative rating. But graduates I know from RAMSA tell me they received an excellent education.
Columbia was not in session when I arrived for the summer. With little to do but manage the small office for a few months, Bob was bored. But then, Bob is easily bored; one of the secrets of his success is the amount of energy he pours into keeping himself productive and amused. Those who know him are not surprised he finished his 500-page memoir during the pandemic quarantine.
On Friday afternoons, the architects in the office would all climb into the RAMSA station wagon for tours of New York City. Most New Yorkers then didn’t travel to different neighborhoods as much as they do now, so these were fascinating trips around Brooklyn (where Bob grew up), the Bronx, and Queens. We toured places like Park Slope and Forest Hills Gardens, and sometimes finished the day at landmark restaurants like Lundy’s or Gargiulio’s. It was early training for me. We would later write New York 1900: Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890–1915.
Gargiulio’s is on Coney Island, which had even more crime than the rest of New York at that time. In those days, New Yorkers all over the city would remove the radios from their cars when they parked and leave their glove boxes open, so would-be thieves could see there was nothing to steal. But Gargiulio’s was reputed to be a mob hangout, and Bob pointed out that no one broke into the cars parked near the restaurant. I remember that the valets would leave the doors open, with the keys in the ignition or on the dash.
During the week, Bob would sometimes take us to lunch individually at the Century Association. Since it was the ’70s, lunch frequently included a club cocktail called the Silversmith, served in chilled silver tumblers. One day at lunch, Bob said, “I have three goals in life.” The first two were to be dean of the Yale School of Architecture and to design a building that New Yorkers would remember in the future. The third was to have an author’s department inside his firm—more on this below. But first, give the man credit for doing what he set out to do: Bob was dean of Yale from 1998 to 2016, and among his many buildings in New York City are two—15 Central Park West and 220 Central Park South—that are the two most financially successful in the history of New York.
At the lunch, Bob proposed that we start the author’s department by producing a volume of Architectural Design (AD). Andrea Papadakis’s AD was a popular English architecture magazine of the day, influential in the birth of Postmodernism. Papadakis gave Bob carte blanche for an issue. A few months later, we wrote The Anglo-American Suburb. st. Martin’s Press published the magazine as the catalog for a show of the same name at the Cooper Hewitt Museum.
While we were writing the book, Bob sent me to Miami to meet his “student” Andrés Duany and Duany’s partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Their office was in Coral Gables at that time, and they had collected information about “the City Beautiful” that we included in the book. Thus began my life in New Urbanism. Thank you, Bob.
A few years later, Duany and Plater-Zyberk made me the town architect of Seaside for a year, and a few years after that I was one of 200 invited to the first meeting of the Congress for New Urbanism. The Anglo-American Suburb became an early New Urban standard, important for the Seaside charrette and then for many later charrettes. When he heard there were only 400 copies left in America, Duany bought them all for charrettes and as gifts to clients.
After we wrote The Anglo-American SuburbAD published an issue titled London 1900, edited by Gavin Stamp. I went to Bob with a proposal for New York 1900, and he showed me a proposal he had already sent to Papadakis. It soon became clear that it was too big for ADand Bob brought in one of his students, Gregory Gilmartin, as a third collaborator.
Much of the information in The Anglo-American Suburb came from seminars Bob taught at Columbia. Columbia’s architecture school is home to Avery Library, the best architectural library in America. Avery publishes a book (now online) called The Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals. Until the Getty Foundation took over the preparation of the index in 1984, the index was made at the discretion of the librarian and never included as many as half of the major articles, and none of the minor stories or notices.
So, in the 1970s, Bob sent his seminar students into the stacks to see what they could find. When we wrote The Anglo-American Suburb, we had a pile of photocopied articles, along with a short list of relevant books. The small issue of AD contained literally everything we knew about the subject. Thirty years later, thanks to resources on the internet, research while traveling, and articles from sources around the country, Bob, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove turned the 95-page periodical into a 1,072 page, 12.5-pound tome on the same subject , Paradise Planned, The Garden Suburb and the Modern City.
Research New York 1900, Bob and Gregory spent much of the summer in the basement of Avery Library. Gregory carried every periodical in the library to Bob, who leafed through every page of every magazine, marking articles on New York City, no matter how short. Gregory then carried the bound volumes to the library’s copy machine, where he copied and annotated every article. In the end, we had over 12 linear feet of articles. Every one of the articles made it into the footnotes, which meant that New York City scholars suddenly had a list of articles about architecture and urbanism in New York City more than twice as long as any previous list. One author who had a book about New York City apartments already in galleys had to look all these articles up in the Avery stacks and revise her book accordingly.
Our footnotes were a great gift to New York City scholarship. Bob deserves the credit for starting the procedure he and Gregory followed. Gregory deserves credit for the carrying and copying. (He used to say that the fumes from the machine grew hair on his chest.) I was lucky that I designed my M.Arch. thesis during that time (a subway suburb in the South Bronx based on our research for The Anglo-American Suburb, and a studio Bob taught at Yale).
We wrote New York 1900 in one very intense year. One Sunday morning at 8:00 am, Bob called and asked why I wasn’t at the office. I had already been there the day before and every other day that week, but I wasn’t surprised that he was already in the office himself.
All of the photographs in the book were from the period, and we tried to see the work as a product of its time, rather than in the harsh light of the Modernist polemic that came later. We revived many terms from the time to describe the buildings, like “Modern Georgian” and “Modern French” (rather than “Beaux-Arts”), and we quoted many contemporary critics. At one point, Bob commented that we had enough information to write a book that was only contemporary quotes. We never commented on what happened to the buildings after 1915.
The book was the first comprehensive look at turn-of-the-century, pre-modern architecture and urbanism in New York City. Bob made it the start of a series of books on New York written with an evolving group of co-authors: New York 1880, New York 1930, New York 1960, and New York 2000. New York 2020 is almost done. The first two in the series, New York 1900 and New York 1930, received a special prize from the New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Three architecture books have been finalists for a National Book Award: New York 1900 and New York 1930 were two of them.
Everyone sat in one room in the office at 200 West 72nd Street the first few years I worked for Bob. We all listened while he talked on the phone with the movers and shakers of the architecture world: Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Vincent Scully, Philip Johnson, and the likes. I left the office soon after Rizzoli published New York 1900, but Bob continued on his rise, as chronicled in his memoir. “Mr. Stern has shown a gift for being at the center of things,” Williams professor Michael J. Lewis wrote in his recent review of the book in the Wall Street Journal. “In the guise of a memoir, he has written what is in effect a capsule history of American architecture since 1960.”
One day I was at lunch in New York with architects and their spouses seated around a big round table. At one point, the conversation turned to Bob. All of the architects were fashionable and up-to-the-minute in their innovative designs; all were ideologically opposed to Bob’s Postmodernism and later traditional design. The discussion soon turned personal. On my right was Ann Landreth, an architectural publicist who later married the architect Graham Gund. She could see I was about to say something, so she leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You know, Bob always says nice things about you.” I hope Bob thinks I’ve said nice things about him here. He’s certainly earned his accolades.