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Blast from the Past
As a designer, Robert A. M. Stern ’65MArch cultivates an air of bygone gentility in his vacation houses. But as the new Dean of the School of Architecture, he’s aiming for anything but calm.

“I’m living in a goldfish bowl. A concrete-and-glass goldfish bowl.”

Robert A. M. Stern, who graduated from the School of Architecture in 1965 and returned as its dean last September, was talking about his third-floor office in the Art and Architecture building, with its plate-glass windows cantilevered out onto the corner of York and Chapel streets. But he was also talking about the feeling that he is being watched: People at Yale and throughout the small world of architecture want to see if he can turn around a school that has found itself in something of a slump over the past few years.

Not that Stern, a New York architect best known in the profession for his Shingle Style mansions and his well-received books on architectural history, is complaining. He has carved out a career for himself as a celebrity architect—hosting a PBS series on architecture, designing a moderately priced “dream house” for Life magazine, and sitting on the board of directors of the Walt Disney Company (a long-time client)—and he is not daunted by the idea of doing his job in full public view.

He is also possessed of a thick skin, something he will clearly need in his new post. While many observers inside and outside Yale greeted his appointment as dean enthusiastically, others complained both bitterly and publicly. Architecture magazine editor Reed Kroloff '82 fumed in an editorial that Stern was “a suede-loafered sultan of suburban retrotecture, a Disney party boy,” and a small group of students walked out in protest when President Levin announced Stern’s appointment to the School. In December, Stern’s presence in the Art and Architecture building led to picketing by broadcast workers’ unions embroiled in a labor dispute with Disney. (“Robert Stern, you can’t hide! Come out on the people’s side!” they chanted.)

Architects rarely stir up such commotion, but stirring things up is precisely what Stern intends to do at Yale. The School of Architecture faces some genuine problems: Its computer systems are inadequate to prepare students for practice, its financial-aid policies fall short of those at several competing schools, and its 35-year-old building poses daily maintenance and functional problems. But Stern and many others close to the School agree that its biggest problem is one of perception and attitude.

For most of the past 40 years, the School has been known for nurturing some of the profession’s most important ideas and practitioners, including the London-based architects Richard Rogers and Sir Norman Foster, New Yorkers Charles Gwathmey and James Stewart Polshek, and Chicagoans Thomas Beeby and Stanley Tigerman. But in the all-important competition for the best students, Yale has suffered lately from the lack of any “buzz,” or excitement. While Columbia’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (where Stern taught until his appointment at Yale) is seen as a bustling center for avant-garde theory and design, Yale has no such identity. This intangible problem has had tangible consequences: In the last three years, the School has had to dip deep into its waiting list to fill its incoming classes.

Unlike many architecture schools, Yale’s has a tradition of being an “open” institution, receptive to differing approaches to design among its students and faculty. So a dean as committed to modernism as the late Paul Rudolph, who served from 1957 to 1965, could turn out a generation of “postmodern” traditionalists (including Stern), just as a prominent postmodernist such as Thomas Beeby, who was dean from 1987 to 1992, could preside over a rediscovery of modern abstraction. But some say the School’s laudable openness began to feel like aimlessness during the recent tenure of Fred Koetter, who was dean of the School from 1992 until last summer. Koetter, who is a practicing architect (like Stern, Beeby, and another former dean, New Haven architect Cesar Pelli), succumbed to a familiar problem: His practice became more successful, making it hard for him to devote sufficient time to the School.

“There’s no doubt that the energy level was low and the School was not as visible as people would expect it to be,” says associate dean Alan Plattus. Stern agrees. What Yale needed, he says, was “a new strong leader who could rally people and give a sense of vision.”

Unfortunately, the search committee that President Levin charged with finding a replacement for Koetter had trouble deciding what that vision should be. The committee, chaired by Beeby and including a number of architecture faculty, seemed to be divided, and produced a “short list” of four candidates who made formal presentations to both students and faculty. Only one of the four could be said to fit the mold of the traditional Yale dean: an independent, up-and-coming practitioner. One was an academic researcher, another an artist and curator, and a third, Marilyn Taylor, was the first female partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the nation’s largest corporate firms. (Taylor, who specializes in transportation projects, is the partner in charge of the firm’s $315-million project to move New York’s Penn Station passenger terminal into a Beaux-Arts post office building.) In the end, the committee recommended that Levin appoint Taylor to the job.

Alan Plattus, who served on the committee, calls the search “a very difficult process.” Addressing the oft-mentioned idea that the committee was divided, Plattus says “you could call it divided or you could call it diverse. But I think it was a reasonable process.”

The candidates, though, were underwhelming to many observers. One of the sharpest critics of the list of finalists was Stern, who was observing the process from New York. “The search had gone awry,” he now says, “and had not produced a convincing candidate.” Stern was among many people who urged Levin to throw out the list and start over, and by the end of the summer, Levin had done just that. After consulting with advisers inside and outside the University, he brought Stern’s name before the search committee for approval.

Stern’s name was a red flag for some faculty members. While the 59-year-old architect was once at the cutting edge of architectural theory and practice, he is now seen by many in the profession as a rear-guard conservative. “My sense is that Stern’s appointment would have been a hard one to make by a committee process,” says Plattus. “He’s not someone you'd think of as doing well in a formal search. It’s kind of like with politicians: I’m not sure Bob would win an election, but he’s someone you'd want in office.”

Nonetheless, with Levin behind Stern, Plattus says the committee was supportive, and whatever reservations were voiced had more to do with how the appointment would be perceived than with what Stern would do as dean. “I know Bob has an agenda as an architect,” says Plattus, “but he understands Yale, and he would not substitute his agenda for that of the school.”

The appointment, which was announced on September 3, was big news on campus and in New York architecture circles. Some students were dismayed, both by the seeming circumvention of the search process and by the nature of Stern’s work. But the appointment scored some rare praise for the University on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which opined that the appointment “might be taken as a signal that architecture’s priorities ought not to be the next hip style or trophy commission.”

The varied reactions were testimony to the impact that Stern has had on architecture over the past 35 years. A native of Brooklyn and a graduate of Columbia College, Stern began to make an impact on architecture even while still a student at Yale. He watched enthusiastically as Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building went up, leading frequent hard-hat tours for visiting architects and critics who were curious about the building, which was famous before it was even finished.

But while Rudolph sought to save modern architecture by bringing new life to the language of abstract form, Stern had already begun to join ranks with the man who sought to overturn the modern aesthetic completely: Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi, whose work Stern published as editor of Perspecta, the Yale student architectural journal. In a 1966 manifesto called Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Venturi reacted against the earnestness of the modern movement, and in his work he employed a playful, ironic use of historical elements. (It is hard to imagine today, but Venturi was able to shock some critics and delight others simply by putting a gable roof on a house he designed for his mother in 1964.) As Stern began to practice architecture in New York, he followed suit, and became a leader in the movement that would come to be known as post-modernism.

As time went on, though, Stern’s academic interest in pre-modern architecture began to influence his work, and the historical references became less ironic and more literal (unlike Venturi, whose work still retains a wry detachment). By the 1980s, Stern was becoming famous as a purveyor of Shingle Style houses that helped new money look like old money. At the same time, he was designing institutional buildings—like the Ohrstrom Library at St. Paul’s School—that aimed to recall the pleasing historicism of American architecture before modernism.

While his practice grew—it now employs 150 people—Stern also found time for a second career as an author. His series of books on the physical history of New York have been widely admired, and even people who can’t abide Stern’s architecture concede that he is an accomplished architectural historian. (Of late, his interest in history has led to a crusade to protect New York’s early modern landmarks, including the much-maligned Huntington Hartford Museum by Edward Durell Stone on Columbus Circle—proving that his interest in preservation goes beyond the buildings he strives to emulate.)

But Stern is most famous—or infamous, to some—for his fruitful association with the Walt Disney Company, which under chairman Michael Eisner started commissioning work from well-known architects in the mid-1980s. Stern has been the most prolific of a handful of architects Disney has used: He designed two hotels and an employment office at Walt Disney World, an animation building at the company’s Burbank, California, headquarters, and a Colorado retreat for Eisner. He also was one of the designers of Celebration, the controversial Disney-developed “new town” on the outskirts of Walt Disney World.

For Stern’s detractors, his association with Disney—he became a member of the company’s board in 1992—confirmed their assessment of him as less an architect than a scenographer, cynically mining the past for its nostalgia value instead of working to advance the cause of architecture.

But Stern makes no apologies for his work. “I am what I am,” he says. “I will debate and discuss, but I will stand by what I do. Not everyone is out there on the cutting edge of ‘shardland,’” he adds, referring to the fragmented forms that have recently become all the rage in architecture. “You can really get cut out there on the cutting edge.”

As for fears that he will give the school a reputation as a retroguard home for historicism, Stern insists that, like Paul Rudolph, he will run an open school. “I’m not going to turn it into the Prince of Wales Institute,” he says, referring to a school Prince Charles founded to promote a revival of traditional architecture in England.

Alan Plattus says that when Stern was appointed, there was an “immediate” change in the energy level at the school. “Bob is fearless,” Plattus says. “He’ll try something and if it doesn’t work, he’ll change it. There’s none of this institutional inertia.”

Stern’s energy was apparent during a pair of interviews with him in his “goldfish bowl” of an office, not long after he began spending three days a week in New Haven last fall. The impeccably tailored dean’s commanding speech and gestures give him an aura of authority that extends well beyond his 5'5” frame. He enthusiastically but wryly spelled out his plans for the School, tossing off quotes from the likes of Oscar Wilde and Lillian Hellman and frequently interrupting the conversation to take calls and give orders. “Academia is much more time-consuming than real life,” he said by way of apology for the interruptions.

Of particular concern on one day were his plans to overhaul the School’s various means of communication and public relations. He told his secretary to “round up” the School’s Web site designer for a meeting, and had a brief conversation with the graphic designer who is revamping the School’s posters and newsletter. “One of our problems is total invisibility,” Stern explains.

He has attacked this problem head-on not only through a new attention to publications and publicity, but also by using his formidable connections to lure big names to the School, both to teach and to lecture. Two of the three visiting professorships for this spring are occupied by heavyweights from Stern’s New York architectural network. One is alumnus Charles Gwathmey '62MArch, the New York architect who designed the 1992 addition to New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and the other is 91-year-old Philip Johnson, who has wielded enormous influence on architecture through his own work (including his famous Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut and the AT&T Building in New York) and his association with the Museum of Modern Art. Johnson’s studio is being co-taught by the well-known avant-garde architect Peter Eisenman, whom Stern has assigned to be Johnson’s “teaching assistant.” (The third distinguished professor is the Los Angeles architect Julie Eizenberg.) The spring lecture list also has more recognizable names than in recent years.

Stern will also face other, more difficult challenges during his five-year term. Architects are using computers more and more, not only to prepare final plans but also in the early phases of design, to help generate forms and shapes that were previously not feasible. But Yale has not matched its competitors in access to and use of computers.

“You can devote a major chunk of a school’s budget just to keeping up [with advances in computers],” says Plattus. “Yale hadn’t made those tough decisions and has thus fallen behind.” While President Levin has committed to finding money to upgrade the School’s computers, Stern—again calling on his wide-ranging contacts—-has assembled a committee of the best-known experts on computers in architecture to determine the School’s needs.

Stern says Levin is also committed to renovating Paul Rudolph’s A&A Building, which will belong to the School of Architecture alone after the School of Art moves across Chapel Street to the former Jewish Community Center in year 2001. The Rudolph building is in drastic need of improvement, and has been severely altered over the years, making some of his brilliant spaces unrecognizable. “This building has been run into the ground, and has to be restored,” says Stern. “If we make a mess of this building, it’ll be front-page news in the New York Times. “ Stern thinks the building may require some $25 million worth of work, and he says the money can’t be raised by the School alone (though Stern himself has the ear of an inordinate number of people with that kind of discretionary income).

Stern hopes to restore Rudolph’s building, and along with it Rudolph’s tough-minded approach to education. Rudolph, like many teachers of architecture in his day, was a demanding critic of student work—stories abound of students being reduced to tears during public reviews (or “juries”) of their projects. “Paul Rudolph did not suffer fools gladly,” says Stern. “I’m going to continue that tradition. We can’t have an environment where everyone is a winner, or we might as well have Mom teach the studio. I think we’ll have constructive, challenging reviews that elevate the discourse.”

But Stern does not expect students to take his criticism as gospel. “Bob’s from an old school of criticism that has changed for the better,” says one colleague. “But the thing you realize about him is that he’s not totalitarian; he wants you to argue back. His style is to be provocative.”

Perhaps the most serious question facing Stern is whether he can oversee a thriving practice in New York and still devote enough attention to the School. Other deans have proven it can be done: Thomas Beeby was by most accounts an effective, engaged dean, even while maintaining a practice on long weekends in Chicago. But the demands of making architecture—which usually only increase as the “bully pulpit” of the deanship leads to new commissions—have just as often left the School orphaned in the later years of a dean’s term.

The 59-year-old Stern, who is divorced and has one adult son, says he’s making it work—so far. “I’m mostly here three days a week. I take the 5:57 a.m. train from New York, and I usually spend one or two nights a week in New Haven,” he says. “The days are long, and weekends have been canceled due to lack of time. It’s a stretch, but the dean of this school has to be an architect. That’s the school’s distinction, its history.”

Unlike some of his predecessors, who took on the deanship before they had become well known, Stern already has enjoyed major professional success, and he may be more concerned about his legacy as a force in education. In this regard, he likens himself not to Rudolph, but to an earlier Yale architecture chairman, George Howe, who ran the program from 1950 to 1954. (Stern is well acquainted with Howe’s career; he wrote a book about him in 1975.) “Howe was in semi-retirement,” Stern explains. “He was a mature man, older than I. What an older person can do is reshuffle the deck and nurture the younger faculty. A younger dean is in competition with his faculty.”

One alumnus of the School says that while he has reservations about Stern’s architecture, he believes he will succeed as dean. “Like every serious architect, I was shocked by the appointment,” says the alumnus, who knew Stern at Yale. “In my eyes, he’s the Martha Stewart of architecture, and represents the commercial takeover of postmodernism. But on second thought, what’s clear to me about Bob is that he has succeeded at everything he’s ever done. The last thing he'd want to do is fail as dean of Yale.”  the end


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