Even the most assiduous self-promoter is well advised to be wary of writing a memoir, which tends to inadvertently divulge more than any author anticipates. That is true of Robert A.M. Stern’s Between Memory and Invention: My Journey in Architecture, a lengthy, minutely detailed, and fitfully revealing account of the architect’s ascent from his humble beginnings in a lower-middle-class Brooklyn Jewish family to the top of his profession. This boastful rugelach-to-riches saga brings to mind Making It, the autobiographical paean to pushiness by Norman Podhoretz, who came from a similar background.1
Oddly enough, although Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA), his two-hundred-employee New York–based firm, has completed nearly two thousand projects, Stern himself is not associated with any instantly identifiable work akin to I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid in Paris, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, or Renzo Piano’s Shard in London. Even members of the general public who are aware of Stern as a cultural figure—most familiar to an older generation as the host of the PBS television series Pride of Place (1984), an eight-part history of American architecture directed by Murray Grigor—might be hard-pressed to name one building he has designed.
Rather, his commanding position has been consolidated by other accomplishments, above all his having served as dean of the Yale School of Architecture from 1998 to 2016. By most reports Stern’s tenure in New Haven was a resounding success, the result of his proficiency as a fundraiser, his skill at wrangling a diverse group of independent-minded faculty members, and his ability to lure a wide range of big-name architects as visiting professors. All the while Stern has been America’s most vociferous exponent of the idea that Modernism was merely an aberrant interruption in the history of architecture, which he sees as a continuum of the Classical tradition to the exclusion of all else.
The fact that he has been able to use a major university once renowned for its High Modernist design faculty—during the 1950s and 1960s Yale professors included the painter Josef Albers, the graphic artist Paul Rand, and the architect Paul Rudolph—as the springboard for his traditionalist agenda is extraordinary in itself. Even as Stern raised Yale’s architecture school to its current preeminence, he carried off a veritable neoconservative revolution at this former seedbed of innovative architectural thought. He thereby gave institutional credibility to his revisionist beliefs, which are considered anachronistic, not to say ludicrous, at Europe’s more advanced architecture schools.
At the same time, Stern’s commercial allure soared as he produced what have become the most reliably profitable American high-end high-rise residential developments of the postmillennial period. If there is one scheme of his that nonprofessionals might recognize, it is 15 Central Park West of 2005–2008 in Manhattan, which, along with his nearby 220 Central Park South of 2013–2019, has consistently set records for the highest sale and resale prices in the metropolitan condominium market.2 These limestone-clad towers—the former is thirty-five stories high; the latter has twice that number—are inevitably likened to the work of Rosario Candela, the Italian-born, Columbia-trained architect whose interwar Manhattan apartment buildings, distinguished by their spacious but ingeniously thought-out floor plans and charming traditional grace notes, are held to be the apex of luxurious multiunit dwellings erected during that period.
However, to those who have actually been inside a Candela building—especially his finest example, the legendary 740 Park Avenue of 1929–1930, designed in tandem with the skyscraper architect Arthur Loomis Harmon—the supposed analogy to Stern’s condominiums may seem risible. The faultless proportions and overgenerous dimensions of 740 Park are epitomized by the unusually deep window reveals that separate the exterior glazing from the inner wall, a sign of cost-be-damned quality. I’ve never failed to be impressed by the building’s immaculate old-world craftsmanship in stone, wood, metal, glass, and plaster. It exudes an all-pervasive air of impenetrable solidity, a quality not much in evidence at 15 Central Park West or 220 Central Park South. It’s like comparing Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. The former might be a rollicking good read, but Wolfe’s gift for social observation is not in the same league as Wharton’s.
In fact, many more people have been inside Stern buildings than they realize, especially at the theme parks and resorts in the US, France, and Japan developed by the Walt Disney Company, for which he has conjured up numerous “themed” hotels and entertainment facilities. These fantasy environments so strenuously mimic the architecture of other times and places—from Gilded Age Newport to Wild West frontier towns, from the Victorian Jersey Shore to Art Deco Miami Beach—that few would imagine that they come from the same hand. Or one should say hands, since Stern, rare among architectural practitioners of his stature, gives name credit to his principal collaborators, a magnanimous gesture that acknowledges them for doing most of the work. Nonetheless, he claims to have personally supervised all the designs that emanate from his firm, though he operates by critiquing his employees’ plans after proposing a basic conceptual idea, much as he did in the architecture studio classes he ran at Columbia and Yale. And like his idol Philip Johnson, who worked in much the same way, Stern is not much of a draftsman.
As this country’s leading champion of an updated Historical Eclecticism (a loosely defined term that covers a wide range of borrowings from various older styles, not just Classicism but also Romanesque, Gothic, Mannerism, and the Baroque, among others), Stern specializes in an architecture characterized by a notable inflation of proportions—columns fatter, moldings thicker, fanlights bigger, keystones chunkier—that sets it identifiably apart from previous Classical revivals. I find RAMSA’s strongest works to be those that relate to an existing architectural setting even if it happens to be Modernist, like Northrup Hall of 2004 at Trinity University in San Antonio.
This handsome flat-roofed, redbrick structure is a sympathetic addition to Trinity’s campus, designed in the 1950s by O’Neil Ford, the pioneering Texas regional Modernist revered in his native state but little recognized beyond its borders except by architectural specialists. Deftly evoking the signature synthesis of vernacular and industrial influences perfected by Ford—who softened Modernism for Texan consumption and shook the hayseed off indigenous rural forms—Northrup Hall’s warm masonry walls are sleekly subdivided by horizontal dark-tinted ribbon windows. The four-story facility is sensitively sited, with gently angled wings that make it the visual nexus of several surrounding structures.
The San Antonio ensemble seems much more appropriate to its purpose than RAMSA’s Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges of 2014–2017 at Yale, two fussily detailed Collegiate Gothic residential groupings that cost an astonishing $500 million by some estimates. These grandiose colleges are an unconvincing pastiche of an English medieval academic cloister as conjured up by the Anglophile art department of a 1930s Hollywood movie studio. Well-traveled first-year students might imagine that they’ve wandered into a themed Disney resort called Academialand.
Stern has patterned his career after that of Johnson, an opportunistic path that might be best summarized by their concentration on corporate and rich private clients and a readiness to shift stylistic direction with prevailing architectural fashions (in Stern’s case, from Modernism to Postmodernism to his elastic version of Classicism).3 However, although Stern learned a great deal from his mentor and occasional tormenter, he never cultivated one important component of Johnson’s formula for success in New York: a strong presence in the art world, which opened a veritable mother lode of prestigious architectural commissions of a sort that Stern has never attained.
Another shared trait is a general apathy toward social issues, unless they involve Society with a capital S. A recent departure for RAMSA in that regard is Edwin’s Place of 2018–2020 in Brooklyn, a 126-unit supportive apartment complex for homeless and low-income tenants sponsored by the nonprofit affordable housing organization Breaking Ground. Although I find its routine beige brick exterior indistinguishable from recent developer condos all over the city, and less adventurous than Alexander Gorlin’s bracingly contemporary Boston Road of 2013–2016 in the Bronx, also sponsored by Breaking Ground, this much-needed facility represents a commendable new direction for the Stern office.4
Although Stern never worked for Johnson—a fascinating point that he never fully explores in his memoir—the senior architect saw qualities in his eager acolyte that he shrewdly determined could be useful to him, not least Stern’s continued insistence that Johnson was an excellent designer and not just an adept power broker, an estimation shared by few others. Ungratefully, the sadistic old wizard took repeated delight in keeping Stern in his subservient place, as is clear from The Philip Johnson Tapes: Interviews by Robert A.M. Stern (2008), a psychic danse macabre between these two advantage-seeking antagonists and spiritual allies.
Robert Arthur Morton Stern was born in Brooklyn in 1939 to Sonya Cohen Stern, a housewife who later became a long-reigning tableware salesperson at the B. Altman department store on Fifth Avenue, and Sidney Stanley Stern, an insurance broker turned factory worker, housewares store owner, and eventually cabdriver whose modest fortunes declined in a manner akin to Willy Loman’s in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949). Among the surprises of Stern’s book is to learn that he is Miller’s second cousin. (Their paternal grandmothers were sisters.) In a text dense with name-dropping, Stern amusingly regrets not having accompanied his parents to the funeral of Miller’s mother in 1961, “because that would have been my only opportunity to see Marilyn Monroe in person.” (The actress and the playwright married in 1956 and divorced five years later.)
One of the traits Stern does not bother to conceal in his book is an all-too-evident dislike of strong women, except for spouses of the tycoons who have hired him. (Jane Eisner, the wife of Michael Eisner, the former chairman and CEO of Disney who became his most important repeat client, is mentioned no fewer than eleven times.) After reading the buttoned-up Stern’s unexpectedly frank recollections of his upbringing, it is difficult not to suspect that his trouble with women started with his mother, whom he depicts as exceptionally demanding and judgmental.
“My mother was many things,” he remembers, “but she was not carefree or fun-loving, and could subject others to severe criticism.” As an architectural educator, Stern earned a well-deserved reputation as a caustic, often cruel evaluator of student work. I witnessed that when I participated with him in an end-of-the-year class jury at the Columbia School of Architecture during the 1980s and was appalled by his vicious demolition of one hapless young aspirant, whom he reduced to tears. Unapologetic, he relishes his notoriety in that respect:
As a teacher, I was controversial and I was demanding…. Students referred to me as “The Bullet,” because I always shot down lofty but insupportable ideas at juries. (Subsequently when I became dean at Yale in 1998, students began to speak of “getting Bobbed” at reviews.) I always wondered why anyone would want to go to school and not have their ideas challenged in a way that forces them to be self-critical and thoughtful.
How many would-be architects chose to pursue other careers because of Stern’s bullying we will never know, and he would surely aver that the building art is better off without them. But his gleeful impersonation of a marine drill sergeant, albeit in Gucci loafers, suggests motivations of a psychological rather than professional nature.
That Stern was a lifelong victim of his mother’s incessant needling is implicit in his memory of the passive-aggressive question she lobbed at him as they walked in Midtown Manhattan when he was well into middle age and extremely successful by any measure: “Bob, why haven’t you designed any skyscrapers yet?” (I’m reminded of the classic Jewish mother joke: when her son wears one of the two shirts she recently gave him, she asks, “So you didn’t like the other one?”)
It may have been fortunate for both of them that Sonya did not live to see the completion of her son’s most conspicuous skyscraper commission to date, the Comcast Center of 2005–2008 in Philadelphia. This fifty-eight-story Modernist tower is of such surpassing banality—a vacuous flange of mirror glass with a huge and pointless rectangular cutout just below its stepped roof—that one might think Stern is right about the superiority of neotraditional forms after all.
Not only underperforming students but otherwise respected female coprofessionals can vex him mightily, none more so than Denise Scott Brown, the architectural partner and wife of Robert Venturi. For years after she married Venturi and joined his office in 1967, misogynists slightingly claimed that Scott Brown was her husband’s secretary rather than his full collaborator, and even called her an impostor who usurped his rightful role as the firm’s front man. Stern writes that “I increasingly began to see Bob as the somewhat self-centered artist hiding behind Denise, the outspoken sociologist…[who] did most of the talking,” despite her being as much an accredited architect as Stern is, and a far better one at that.
He goes on to report that when he and his then wife invited the Venturis to stay with them in East Hampton during the 1970s, Scott Brown was
asked what she did by one of our neighbors seated next to her at the long dinner table…. Denise replied in her piping voice: “I am a teacher, a writer, an architect, a city planner,” and on and on. It was a conversation stopper.
He is also still scornful of her attire on that long-ago occasion, when, he writes, she “wore what appeared to be a gauzy white nightgown in lieu of the more conventional evening wear of the day.” Did she forget to pack her Pucci palazzo pajamas and David Webb bijoux de plage?
From the time he was an adolescent, Stern knew that he wanted to become an architect, and his will to advance himself was so intense that seven decades later he still harbors resentment toward the schools he could not get into:
I had hoped to attend the then-prestigious and nearby Erasmus Hall, but district boundary lines had just been redrawn so that middle-class strivers like me would be inserted into faltering high schools like Manual Training…which is said to have been the inspiration for Evan Hunter’s 1954 social commentary on juvenile rebelliousness The Blackboard Jungle, subsequently made into a popular movie.
An even sharper disappointment was his abortive attempt to win a place at Harvard in 1956:
The college rejected my application, despite strong recommendations from my cousin Russell, a graduate, and one or two of his Harvard pals. Harvard, it would seem, felt that one Stern was enough. I was pissed.
Even now Stern can be comically oblivious to the unlikelihood, in those far more elitist times, that a working-class Brooklyn Jew from Manual Training High School would be accepted by Harvard unless he were intellectually exceptional and athletically gifted.
In the event, he settled for Columbia. He perpetuates the old canard that Morningside Heights was rife with dejected Harvard rejects. (I was an undergraduate there myself a decade after Stern; it had been my first college choice, and among my classmates was his gentle, delightful brother, Elliot, who went on to become a Sanskrit scholar and is about as different from his sibling as could be imagined.)
Grudgingly the architect concedes that Columbia turned out to be “a wonderful place to learn.” Indeed, he names so many courses he took with stars of its faculty in various disciplines—including comparative literature with Lionel Trilling, English with Mark Van Doren, history with Henry Steele Commager, and sociology with C. Wright Mills—that his keen sense of exclusion from the Brahmin precincts of Harvard Yard seems based more on perceptions of class than intellectual grounds.
Instead of moving on to Columbia’s well-regarded architecture school, Stern applied to Yale. This time he succeeded in gaining entrée to a school equal to his social ambitions, a yearning he satisfied by entirely different means after receiving his architecture degree there in 1965. The following year, Stern wed Lynn Gimbel Solinger, a Smith honors graduate and a granddaughter of Bernard Gimbel, president of his family’s New York department store and its nationwide chain of fifty-three branches at the firm’s peak in 1965. The young couple had met when they both worked on the Republican congressman John V. Lindsay’s winning campaign for mayor of New York City. As Stern writes economically, “We clicked.”
Stern portrays the large extended clan he married into as being oddly ashamed of their Jewishness, and he mirrors their unease by never directly addressing his own feelings on the subject. Lynn’s family, he says, were avid equestrians, celebrated Christmas and Easter, and used Reform Judaism’s grandest sanctuary, New York’s Temple Emanu-El, mainly for funerals. The elaborate Solinger–Stern nuptials were held in the garden of Chieftains, her maternal grandparents’ 250-acre Greenwich, Connecticut, estate, and provided the lead society story for the next day’s New York Times. Even though the officiant was Nathan A. Perilman, Temple Emanu-El’s chief rabbi, the bride was adamant about one detail, as her groom writes:
Lynn, egged on by her older sister Faith (who would later convert to Presbyterianism and become a deaconess), insist[ed]: “No Hebrew.” But Perilman could not resist. After all, he was a rabbi and he slipped in a little line, nothing too egregious.
Following a seven-week honeymoon in Europe—Stern’s first trip there—the couple set up housekeeping at the Century, an Art Deco landmark on Manhattan’s Central Park West. In 1969, after a brief stint working for his slightly older, Modernist contemporary Richard Meier—who fired him, Stern reports—he initiated a partnership with a Yale classmate, John S. Hagmann, which lasted until 1977, when he founded RAMSA. His career accelerated quickly, thanks to jobs for apartment renovations, residential additions, and then entire houses, several of them attained through his new social connections.
The couple’s only child, Nicholas Solinger Gimbel Stern, was born in 1968, after which Lynn Stern became the photo archivist for her husband’s firm. But by the middle of the next decade their relationship began to unravel. Stern is understandably chary in revisiting the darkest personal episode of his life. He cites his excessive fixation on work as a major factor in the breakdown of the marriage and cites “monster rows” with his wife. But he neglects to mention that some of the ugliest scenes were played out in front of his office staff, and rumors soon raced through architectural circles.
It was also alleged that Lynn and a younger architect in the firm, Jeremy Lang, a former Stern student at Columbia, were having an affair, although Stern never states this in his book. Further complicating matters, one of Stern’s finest early projects was his Lang house of 1973–1974 in Washington, Connecticut, designed for Lang’s parents—his father was the musicologist Paul Henry Lang. This suavely stylized Venturian essay in a stripped-down Classical mode channels the Hollywood Regency style and is beautifully situated with views of an arcadian landscape. Jeremy Lang resigned from the Stern office in December 1976, and five months later his former boss and his wife legally separated. Their divorce became final the following year, and Lynn Stern married Lang in 1980. They remain together. Stern is not known to have had subsequent romantic attachments, nor does he disclose any in his memoir.
Far too much of Between Memory and Invention dwells on issues that are clearly of abiding importance to Stern but will be of little interest to the average reader. Every incremental step of his career is recounted in tedious detail, none more so than his early curatorial job at the Architectural League of New York. Not all of the text’s many discursions deal with purely professional matters—insofar as Stern makes any distinction between his public and private selves—and we are treated to long-winded stories of parties galore (replete with guest lists, candid photos, toasts, and even descriptions of cakes), including his fortieth, fiftieth, and eightieth birthday celebrations, a bash for the premiere of Pride of Place, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and White House black-tie dinners given by Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush.
Although Stern says he’s a registered Democrat, he terms himself “a Rockefeller Republican—perhaps the last one living.” Nevertheless, his arrière-garde cultural outlook gives his historically referential designs a reassuring aura of nostalgic recidivism that has attracted politically conservative clients. Among the Stern firm’s most visible public commissions is the Museum of the American Revolution of 2011–2017 on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, a quasi-Classical scheme whose redbrick-and-limestone exterior is in concert with the mall’s focal landmark, the eighteenth-century Independence Hall. Fortunately, the two are far enough apart to avoid uncomfortable comparisons, since RAMSA’s blocky, flat-roofed Colonial Revival hybrid exhibits none of the finesse that even a provincial Georgian structure could display three centuries ago. (The Museum of the American Revolution made news earlier this year when six scholarly organizations, including the American Historical Association, denounced it for allowing Moms for Liberty—a right-wing group that endorses book bans and has been accused of harassing schoolteachers—to rent the building for its “national summit.”)
Like Johnson, as far as one can tell Stern seems loath to let a juicy job get away from him because of principle. When he was asked to design the George W. Bush Presidential Center, on the campus of Southern Methodist University near Dallas, he brushed off pleas that he renounce this dubious honor. “I did not see my acceptance or rejection of the commission as a political act,” Stern writes. “I was not being asked to endorse policies.” Of course he was being asked to memorialize arguably the worst president in American history before Donald Trump. Yet he did so in such a strange way that this pairing of artist and patron might someday be seen as inspired.
On its unprepossessing front elevation, this symmetrical, colonnaded low-rise composition—Stern optimistically terms its generic nonstyle “essence of Georgian”—resembles a branch bank in a suburban shopping mall and gives no hint of the bizarrerie that lurks behind its bland limestone-and-brick surface. The building’s cynosure, a double-height, clerestoried space called the Freedom Hall, is overpowered by a gigantic wraparound LED mural on which frantically animated videos depict a fantasy America with the disorienting immersive effect of a walk-in Xbox game.
Stern brags that at the center’s dedication, Bill Clinton “was awestruck” by the electronic frieze. He then dismisses Clinton’s presidential library and museum in Little Rock—an adventurously unconventional cantilevered Modernist structure by the New York firm of James Stewart Polshek, the dean of Columbia’s architecture school when Stern taught there—for being “more about late corporate modernism than the values of public architecture.” This is a curious accusation, considering that the dominant mode of corporate architecture in this country during Johnson’s 1980s heyday—when his firm designed headquarters for AT&T, PPG, Bank of America, and other Fortune 500 companies—was the historically based Postmodernism with which Stern first made his name. Public architecture can take many stylistic forms, as Stern has proclaimed to justify his retardataire preferences, but his simplistic equation of Classicism = Good, Modernism = Bad exposes the dogmatic side of his nature.
Incontestably, Stern has demonstrated that even with the continued predominance of Modernist architecture in this country, there is a strong alternative market for neotraditional design. However, during his catastrophic presidency, Trump pandered to an extremist architectural faction by endorsing its call for an executive order that would have required all federal construction projects to be designed in a Classical mode. That repressive maneuver met with immediate blowback and drew parallels to Hitler and Albert Speer.
But Stern, by now a seasoned establishment power player, is too clever for such clumsy frontal attacks. He has understood that Classicism, however denatured, is here to stay, but rather than leave its execution to poorly educated contractors or batty fanatics, he reinstated it as part of mainstream architectural education. His influence on university curricula has ensured that some form of neotraditional design will be taught at architecture schools for the foreseeable future, and not just at Yale.
Having so closely copied Johnson’s modus operandi, it’s surprising that Stern has not followed him in creating an equivalent of what may be his most enduring legacy: the forty-nine-acre Glass House estate of 1949–1995 in New Canaan, Connecticut (now under the care of the National Trust for Historic Preservation), with its fourteen folly-like structures that offer a veritable stylistic recap of every phase in his aesthetically mutable career. In contrast, Stern muses on the ultimate disposition of the small East Hampton house he remodeled for himself after his divorce forced him to give up the far larger one where he and his ex-wife had lived in that costly seaside village. All he could afford on his own was a little ranch-style house that he gussied up with an array of Postmodern motifs that would be touchingly valiant if the results weren’t so awkward.
Even after Stern hit the financial big time, he didn’t splurge with his newfound millions on self-aggrandizing real estate showpieces like Johnson. He now lives in an apartment at the Chatham of 1997–2001, a redbrick-and-limestone-clad RAMSA condominium tower with historicizing ornamentation on the Upper East Side. He used the $14.2 million windfall he garnered in 2013 from the sale at Christie’s of a 1963 Donald Judd minimalist wall sculpture (which he fortuitously kept after his divorce) to establish a charitable foundation “to support architectural culture at Yale and Columbia.”
For all his hard-won success, Robert A.M. Stern, who will turn eighty-five next spring, does not come across in his self-told life story as a man at peace with himself. For example, although he refers to his son, Nicholas, the founder of a New York construction management firm, sixteen times in his text, there is no mention of his daughter-in-law, Courtney Stern, an interior designer, or his three grandchildren. Instead he betrays a gnawing anxiety that things might be snatched away from him somehow. As he writes in one of his book’s saddest and most telling passages:
Technically, the [East Hampton] house is no longer mine—in a moment of madness, taking advantage of a tax provision, I gave it to Nicholas, who is now my landlord. And while I admit having said to him that once I depart this world the house could revert to the tear-down status it held when I first bought it, I hope he does not tear it down while I am still living in it.
1967; New York Review Books, 2017. ↩
See my “New York: Conspicuous Construction,” The New York Review, April 2, 2015. ↩
For more on Johnson, see my “The Godfather,” The New York Review, April 18, 2019. ↩
For more on Boston Road, see my “A Higher Form of High-Rise,” nybooks.com, October 4, 2016. ↩