Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture and the head of an expansive New York practice, was recently awarded the tenth Vincent Scully Prize given by the National Building Museum (NBM). The award was established in 1999 and recipients have included Jane Jacobs, the Prince of Wales, Phyllis Lambert, and the Aga Khan.
It has been a banner year for Stern: Along with the Scully Prize, he was recently chosen by President George W. Bush to design his presidential library, he won a rave profile in Vanity Fair for his luxe condo high rise 15 Central Park West, and he oversaw the rededication of Yale’s once-dilapidated Art and Architecture Building as Paul Rudolph Hall, named for the building’s designer who was also Stern’s former teacher and predecessor as dean.
The award is also something of a vindication for Stern, who came to his New Haven deanship a decade ago amid griping that he would, like his immediate predecessors Thomas Beeby and Fred Koetter, sacrifice his academic role for the lucrative returns garnered by his firm, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, which had cornered the market in crowd-pleasing, historicist design.
“Nobody who would be appointed to a job like dean of the Yale School of Architecture would be above some criticism,” Stern said in an interview a few days after the award ceremony. That said, he added, “I do feel people have responded amazingly well to what I have been able to accomplish.”
Things were not always so rosy. In 1998, at the urging of Scully, a legendary architectural historian and Stern’s former mentor, Yale President Richard Levin chose Stern as dean after a selection committee had rejected him, only to meet with at times outright derision from many corners of the architectural community. Reed Kroloff, then editor of Architecture, dismissed Stern as a “suede-loafered sultan of suburban retrotecture, Disney party boy, and notorious academic curmudgeon.”
Indeed, while Stern had developed a national reputation as an academic and a practicing architect, if he was famous he was also infamous, and increasingly pigeon-holed: as a narrow-minded historicist, as a political reactionary, as a corporate architect who enjoyed the art of the deal more than the art of building. He sat on the board of directors at Disney, even as he criticized architects he thought too enthralled with trendy styles and ideas.
“There were many on the faculty who wondered, wasn’t Bob a little too strong-minded to be dean,” admitted Levin at the Scully Prize gala dinner, held in the NBM’s cavernous central hall in Washington, D.C., on November 13.
Onlookers feared that he would refashion Yale in his image at precisely the moment when the school was in desperate need of renovation—suffering from a B-grade faculty, an inferior physical plant, and an ignorance of computer-assisted design. Ten years later, Yale has made a comeback, an achievement even his erstwhile detractors credit to Stern. “Bob has done an extraordinary job at Yale,” said Kroloff, now director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum. “He is among the very best deans in the entire country. He will probably by remembered as the best dean in Yale’s history.”
Stern did a particularly good job importing full-time and visiting faculty who clashed with his own conservative views on architecture, including Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, and Greg Lynn. “He made it clear that a school of architecture cannot be a dean’s studio,” said Levin.
He has managed to do all of this without sacrificing his practice. He has nearly doubled his firm’s head count to some 300 and completed a series of blockbuster projects, including Philadelphia’s Comcast Center and 15 Central Park West, with another Manhattan tower, 99 Church Street, in process. He was also recently picked to design two new residential colleges at Yale, the university’s first since the 1960s.
Stern is still not without detractors in the architectural world, though few are willing to go on the record, even anonymously, a reflection of the enormous influence he wields. While some of the criticism is aimed at his ability and aesthetic opinions as an architect—writing in New York, Justin Davidson called Stern “an architect who specializes in the best nostalgia that money can buy”—much of it is political.
Stern is careful to define his conservatism as an aesthetic choice, but he has nonetheless been embraced by the Right; the webzine Frontpage boasted that “America’s greatest architect is a conservative.” Few were surprised, then, when President George W. Bush chose Stern to design his library. Nevertheless, Stern’s defenders—and there are many, inside and out of the profession—use his refreshing turn as dean as a newfound defense. Said longtime friend and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, “Ten years from now, I’m sure he will do the Obama library as well.”