He’s designed everything from Chicago’s ubiquitous bus shelters to Philadelphia’s tallest skyscraper and the future George W. Bush presidential library. And he’s done it in just about every style.
Acerbic, energetic and incredibly prolific, New York City architect Robert A.M. Stern is, above all, a pluralist, whose free-wheeling formal approach has alienated purists across the aesthetic spectrum. Yet even his critics might admit that he’s had a powerful impact on contemporary design.
On Tuesday, the 71-year-old Stern (left) will be named the 2011 winner of the Richard H. Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture, adding a jolt of star power to an award that has garnered relatively little media attention since it was established in 2003.
Named for its sponsor, Chicago venture capitalist Richard Driehaus, and given through the Notre Dame School of Architecture, the prize recognizes a leading practitioner of classical or traditional architecture and comes with a cash award of $200,000—twice as much as the older and more prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, which was established by the billionaire Pritzker family of Chicago and typically goes to a leading modernist.
Nashville Public Library, RAMSA, 2001
Asked in a telephone interview what the Driehaus Prize means to him, Stern cited architecture’s polarized factions of traditionalists and modernists, as well as his reliance on principles that date back to ancient Greece and Rome.
“It’s a great honor,” he said. “It’s recognition that in our sadly bifurcated world of architecture one can pursue a great tradition of architecture that goes back thousands of years and bring it into the modern world.” (at left, his Nashville Public Library).
In a career that began in the mid-1960s, Stern made his name—and enemies–by championing a post-modern architecture that departed from the rigid orthodoxy of steel-and-glass modernism.
Comcast Center, Philadelphia
Flip through his brick-sized monographs and you find an astonishing assortment of styles—brown-shingled seaside cottages, Art Deco hotels, Gothic revival prep schools, glass-sheathed office towers (his Comcast Center, at left, is Philadelphia’s tallest building), even a baseball stadium (the Anaheim Angels’) festooned with baseball cap-shaped entrance pavilions and a bat-supported marquee.
His portfolio extends to urban design. He helped shape the nostalgic, Disney-backed new town, Celebration, in Florida and played a major role in the tourist-friendly revitalization of New York’s 42nd Street.
Stern’s non-ideological approach has managed to upset both of architecture’s camps—the modernists, who accuse Stern of shaping a stage-set historicism, and the classicists, who claim he takes liberties with cherished archetypes.
Spangler Campus Center at Harvard Business School
But the eight-member Driehaus jury, which includes the prize’s sponsor and experts from throughout the field, set aside such objections, valuing such robust reinterpretations of the Beaux-Arts as the Harvard Business School’s campus center (left) and Stern’s body of contributions to the field.
Those contributions include Stern’s wide-praised deanship of the Yale architecture school, to which he invites regularly invites leading modernists and traditionalists, and his decades of provocative, literally heavyweight scholarship. He has, for example, co-authored a five-volume architectural history of New York City that has 5,400 pages and weighs in at 38 pounds.
Stern was recognized “for his scholarship, his role as dean, and for his overall impact on the architecture of our time,” said jury member Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker’s architecture critic.
“Bob has brought classicism into the mainstream,” said Michael Lykoudis, dean of the Notre Dame School of Architecture and the chairman of the Driehaus jury
Stern, who will receive the prize in ceremonies on March 26 in Chicago, said he would donate his winnings to a Yale architecture school endowment devoted to teaching the classical tradition in the school’s design studios.
He has never designed a major building in Chicago, but has nevertheless made his presence felt here.
He worked with the late Bruce Graham and Stanley Tigerman on unrealized plans for a 1992 Chicago world’s fair, taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s architecture school when Tigerman led it and contributed a memorable entry to the 1980 Late Entries to the Chicago Tribune Tower Competition. His exercise in post-modern classicism sought to marry Adolph Loos’s column-like entry to the original Tribune competition of 1922 with the glass prisms of Ludwig Mies van Rohe.
Chicago bus shelter photo by Chicago Tribune
In addition the bus shelters, which have touches of classical ornament but have drawn criticism from CTA riders for letting in the wind, his built work here includes two North Shore houses and a remodeled apartment in the Gold Coast. Stern’s current projects include the design for a new law school building at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Like many architects, Stern has had to downsize because of the economic downturn. His office has 220 employees, down from a high in 320 in the fall of 2008. He’s on the lookout for new projects, but his bitingly frank manner may not win him friends, especially at the University of Chicago, where he finds fault with the recent crop of modernist buildings, such as the new business school by New York architect Rafael Vinoly.
“They don’t seem to like their traditional buildings,” Stern said, referring to the university’s neo-Gothic quadrangles but overlooking its new limestone-sheathed dorm—a building whose mix of the Gothic and the contemporary betrays the influence of one Robert A.M. Stern
(Robert A.M. Stern portrait courtesy of Robert A.M. Stern Architects; photos of Nashville Public Library, Comcast Center and Spangler Campus Center at Harvard Business School by Peter Aaron/ESTO; Chicago bus shelter photo by Chicago Tribune)