53 Questions for Robert A.M. Stern
Between February and August of this year, Luca Farinelli met with some 20 architects, critics, and historians and presented them with an identical sequence of questions, recording each meeting on video. Conversations with Emilio Ambasz, Peter Eisenman, Steven Holl, Bjarke Ingels, and Thom Mayne can be found in Log
23 (Fall 2011). We continue publishing those interviews here with Robert A.M. Stern, Dean and J.M. Hoppin Professor of Architecture at the Yale School of Architecture and founder and senior partner in the firm of Robert A.M. Stern Architects of New York City.
Place of birth?
New York City.
What is your profession?
Architect and . . . well, let's stick to that.
Mountains or sea?
Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Lady Gaga or Beyonce?
Couldn't care less.
Mac or PC?
Never turned on a computer my entire life.
Do you ride the wave or do you resist it?
Depends on the day, depends on the situation. Sometimes I ride, sometimes I resist. Basically, I may be more of a contrarian than not.
Do you spell architecture with a capital A?
What is your favorite color?
I don't have favorites of anything except yellow socks.
Plan or section?
I can't imagine doing a building without either, but I start with the plan.
Axonometric or perspective?
Plastic or tectonic?
What is plastic? Do you mean blobs? I'm a tectonic guy.
Is the architect a victim of circumstances?
I can't generalize. I think most architects are, but I like to think that I'm not.
Can architecture be used as a language?
Architecture has its own languages. There are many languages of architecture, but they are specifically architectural.
Is architecture a means or an end?
To the architect it might be an end, but to the rest of the world it is a means. Tricky.
Is architecture democratic?
I don't think architecture has a politics.
Should architecture be democratic?
I don't think architecture should have a politics.
Spider, bee, or ant. Which is the best architect?
I've never given it a thought.
Is architecture masculine or feminine?
I don't have an impression of that.
One of your favorite buildings?
I never cite favorite buildings.
Farnsworth House or Glass House?
Glass House, by personal association. But that doesn't mean I don't admire the Farnsworth House.
Corb or Mies?
Depends on the day.
Less or more?
Form follows function?
Form follows form, to quote Philip Johnson.
What are Corb's five points for a new architecture?
What is this, a quiz? The horizontal window, the pilotis, the use of the roof, the wall separated from the frame . . . I missed the free plan.
Greco-Roman or Gothic?
I am a classicist, but it doesn't mean I can't be a Gothicist when I need to be.
Collage City or Spatial City?
Spatial City? That's not a city, that is a fanta-city.
Whites or Grays?
Gray. If I had known what your questions were going to be I would have worn a gray suit.
Is there architecture without architects?
I suppose there is. Yes!
Is there architecture without buildings?
Is architecture autonomous?
In the sense that it has its own language of expression and grammar and so forth, it has independence or autonomy. But architecture exists in the larger context of the world, Pier Vittorio Aureli notwithstanding.
Is Main Street OK?
Almost all right, quoting Bob Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. But some Main Streets are more OK than others.
Global or local?
You have to be global and local in the 21st century. The search is to find a reasonable ground between global and local, and to negotiate the challenges posed by global forces, which often don't want you to be local when your heart tells you that you should be local.
Portrait or landscape?
Do I like tall buildings versus horizontal buildings? The vertical window. The human proportion. I don't design my buildings for people who are sleeping.
Everything is architecture. Is it?
What is the greatest architectural invention of the past 20 years?
Double envelope. Is the inside to be reflected on the outside?
The wall is a mediator between the inside and the outside. The degree to which the one is reflected on the other -- and it could go either way -- is a matter of intention on the architect's part and circumstance in terms of the actual programmatics. There are no absolute rules in architecture in that sense. When you have a language you can say an infinite number of things. If the language isn't flexible enough to say many different things it's not a very useful language.
Dubai. Yay or nay?
It's not my business to vote on cities.
Is the blob formal excess or lack of form?
It is both, I think. I don't even think about the blob anymore. I thought it was formless, or to put it another way, it was not my kind of form.
Is utopianism still alive?
Maybe, but ask somebody who is a utopian by inclination. Don't ask me, I'm not a utopian. I'm pragmatic, a realist.
Is architecture hiding behind technology?
A lot of architecture does hide behind technology. A lot of architects, too many architects, hide behind technology.
Is the architect a specialist or a generalist?
An architect should be a specialist in architecture and a generalist in the larger circumstances architecture must intersect with or be part of. The architect needs to be both.
Is the city a place or a condition?
We use the word city
too loosely. Cities I admire are places; urban areas are conditions. The city is a place; urbanism is a condition. We say that most people in America live in cities, but there is not much evidence to support that claim. We describe cities in demographic terms or in statistical terms, but that doesn't make a city, that makes an urban area.
Did print kill or did it create architecture?
Print certainly didn't create architecture. Architecture existed long before print.
Did animation kill or did it reinvent architecture?
For a while it threatened to kill architecture. Fortunately architecture is a very lively and robust phenomenon, so it is surviving animation.
Will simulation kill or enhance architecture?
It will enhance our capacity to develop architecture. It is a very useful tool.
Is the architect working for the client or for society?
Specifically, for the client, but conceptually, or in his heart, the architect must work for society. And the architect must also work for the art of architecture.
Between art and science, where is architecture situated?
It is not a science. It is an art. It is the art of the possible. Maybe I should say it is an art
of the possible.
Is digital technology redefining architecture, or is it confusing the architect?
I think digital technology is redefining the ways that the architect can undertake architecture. It opens up new avenues for architectural expression, or form, if you want to use that word, but it doesn't change architecture. Last night, when I was in Grand Central Terminal, I saw people taking pictures of the station, thrilled by the great room that lies at the heart of the station. I've never seen anybody take pictures like that in a digitally generated building thus far. I'm still waiting.
Is architecture a conservative discipline?
Is the West going through a midlife crisis?
I don't know.
Is architecture itself in crisis, or the solution to it?
Throughout my entire career in architecture, which dates back to 1960, I've been told architecture is in crisis. If there were a patient on an operating table who had been in crisis for 50 years that patient would be long dead. It is impossible to be in crisis perpetually. The word crisis
has been way overused and misunderstood. Architecture is always confronting changing circumstances of its own production and of its own purpose in the world. It has one main purpose, which is to make beautiful buildings to define important occasions.
Find more conversations in Log 23 (Fall 2011)