Robert A. M. Stern Architects: A Classical Approach to the Top
New York architect Robert Stern is one of the touchstones in the business of creating ultra-luxurious residences in the world’s modern cities. Yet these residences often have a traditional look that recalls Stern’s own fascination with the early days of New York architecture.
I’ve arrived at the wrong office. Or have I? I’m expecting a stark white space with glass walls and an army of iMacs, the norm for today’s design studios. Instead, the reception area at Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) is softly lit with muted green walls and crown moulding. In the adjacent room, amid cluttered desktops I glimpse silhouettes of paper and clay models of buildings.
“You can have a seat in the library,” the receptionist tells me, gesturing to an adjoining room that is stacked with architectural monographs. Beyond the library, I find Mr Stern seated at his desk, reviewing a stack of papers and looking dapper in a pinstriped suit, tie and pocket square. “Hurry up,” he tells the photographer. “I hate having my photo taken.”
A sense of decorum is to be expected from a man who has built a career on reviving the principles of classicism in modern architecture. A crackling sense of humor, less so. Robert Stern, who goes by Bob, possesses both.
Stern founded his first practice in 1969 and focused initially on luxury residential work, but later expanded his range to include cultural, civic and commercial projects, which he has worked on worldwide. In his native New York, he is perhaps best known for 15 Central Park West, a residential building with a limestone façade and opulent lobby that references the classic buildings designed by Rosario Candela on Park and Fifth Avenues. When 15 Central Park West was completed in 2008 it grossed around US$2 billion in sales, at the time making it the most expensive apartment block in New York’s history and the most profitable residential building in the world.
Today Stern’s 300-employee office is also increasingly active in China, both on the mainland and in Hong Kong where, most recently, RAMSA worked on the design for Mount Nicholson, the exclusive residential enclave on The Peak by Wheelock Properties and Nan Fung.
After half a century in the industry as architect, scholar and teacher, Stern still appears to love a debate and readily offers opinions. There are recurrent themes to our conversation– research, for one. Stern is a perpetual history student, which explains an office library with over 13,000 volumes. “Google is for tourists of a very casual kind,” he says.
Then there is urbanism – the study of how people best fit into increasingly large cities. This seems more significant to Stern than any particular style of architecture. “I don’t care if the building is doing a twirling whirling twist,” he says. “How does it come down to the street? Does it make a significant contribution to the city?”
And when he speaks of his wider inspiration and vision, he of course refers to the majestic capitals of history. “I want to make great cities like they were,” he says. “Like Paris, like London, like Rome, like Athens – before it went to hell in a handbasket.”
SEEING THE SKYLINE
Born in Brooklyn in 1939, Stern grew up during the postwar period when a flurry of new buildings were turning heads in Manhattan, including the United Nations headquarters and the Lever House, which was down the street from Stern’s childhood dentist. But it was the prewar buildings in lower Manhattan that left the strongest impression. “To me the skyline in Manhattan – as it was then – you could see it from the subway as you were coming in. It was a kind of Oz. It was just glittering with these towers,” he says.
Stern’s reverence for that prewar period of Manhattan’s history has persisted. His firm’s newest addition to the Manhattan skyline is 30 Park Place, a 282-metre tribute to buildings of the 1920s, which houses both a Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences. The tower’s slender silhouette and limestone-clad façade is a nod to 1 Park Place, an Art Deco building nearby, and it stands in stark contrast to the ubiquitous glass curtain wall of buildings that have sprung up around Ground Zero.
All of RAMSA’s residential projects currently underway in Manhattan – 520 Park Avenue, 220 Central Park South and 20 East End Avenue – are traditional in their references, clad in limestone and complete with moulding and metal work. At 30 Park Place, the ground floor is embellished by decorative botanical motifs carved in stone and rendered in metal. The upper portion of 20 East End Avenue has set backs and stepped gardens. At 520 Park Avenue, a double-height arched doorway with a suspended bronze canopy leads into a richly detailed lobby.
Stern has been working with artisans since he began designing high-end residential architecture. But beyond the decorative qualities, he believes that the buildings themselves should look crafted. “If you have a building that looks built, crafted, not assembled, people will keep it,” he says. “If it looks assembled it can be disassembled.”
This has also been the studio’s approach in China, where traditions of craftsmanship have, for the better part of the last century, taken a back seat to a faster, more disposable building style. At Schwarzman College, a new residential and academic centre in Beijing’s Tsinghua University, RAMSA has incorporated traditional Chinese materials and building techniques into the scheme, which is organised around two central courtyards. The building is clad in local grey brick with stone and wood detailing and a traditional sloping tile roof. Stern says the last thing he and American financier Stephen Schwarzman, the founder of the elite scholarship programme to be hosted at the new college, wanted was for scholars from around the world to arrive at the college and find a building they could just as easily see in another city. “We wanted to say ‘this is a great 5,000-year-old culture, let’s pay tribute to it.’”
In Hong Kong, RAMSA has looked to the territory’s colonial history for architectural references. The firm’s first project, 50 Connaught Road, is built of Portuguese limestone with large, harbour-facing windows. Paul Whalen, a partner at RAMSA who oversees much of the firm’s work in Asia together with Grant Marani, describes the project as a labour of love. “We really admire some of the historic buildings in Hong Kong,” he says. “We thought the history of the beginnings of the city had been forgotten, and there is room in the city to have a little bit of that memory.”
The building broke a price per square foot record in Hong Kong when it sold to the Agricultural Bank of China for HK$4.9 billion in 2012. And its prominent location across from the Four Seasons has helped lead to other prestigious commissions, including a project for the Sai Kung Tennis and Golf Club as well as The Morgan, an upcoming condominium project on Conduit Road. The building backs into the foliage of the surrounding mountain and the residences look out onto what Whalen describes as a “tapestry” of green. At ground level, a vertical garden brings the green of the hillsides down to the street. The property will also have a clubhouse and an infinity pool. “There’s a breeze that comes down between the hills that helps to make it a bit cooler in the summer,” adds Marani. The site was compelling to work with but also challenging, largely a consequence of Hong Kong’s building regulations. “We have never built a building under such stringent requirements,” states Whalen.
RAMSA’s most prominent residential project in Hong Kong, however, is Mount Nicholson, the collection of ultra luxurious residences from Wheelock Properties. I meet Stern in mid-February, the day after the first of his villas sells for US$107 million, or as Stern puts it, “a very substantial amount of money,” a fact that clearly pleases him, despite the fact the sale price was around 25 per cent below its estimate, a symptom of a broader downturn in the Hong Kong housing market.
Mount Nicholson includes a mix of villas and townhouses all geared to take in the sweeping views. But the spectacular site is only part of the story, says Stern. The villas he designed balance the site’s immediate context, Hong Kong Island’s vertiginous vistas, with a wider historical background. “The British roots of Hong Kong are very important to the city’s history,” he says. “And so we set out to bring a spirit of that [heritage] to bear on the design of these houses. They have deep roots in Western classicism but are also completely modern and open to the view.”
Once again, RAMSA chose to clad the buildings in stone. “I think people respect stone as a material that has enduring value,” Stern says. “It evolves over the course of the day as the sun and the clouds shine against it. It’s wonderful. It’s not blinding you with reflections, in fact it’s taking the light.”
NEW YORK URBANISM, ASIAN ADAPTATION
Convincing developers to use stone is not always easy, but it’s usually worth the effort. One of the firm’s most successful projects to date in mainland China is Heart of Lake, a residential project on Huxindao Island in Xiamen. At an early meeting, developers Vanke said they wanted to clad the building in ceramic tile. “Both of our jaws dropped,” recalls Marani. “We felt defeated.” However, the partners were able to convince Vanke to take the risk and use granite, a material that is costly and requires more maintenance but, the partners say, gives the project a distinction that other buildings don't have. "And the brilliant thing is that the stone is local," adds Whalen. "It's a warm coloured granite that looks like a limestone, and Xiamen is sitting on a mountain of it."
In addition to a love of stone, RAMSA works to bring New York-style urbanism to its projects in Asia. A unique feature of Manhattan urbanism that distinguishes it from cities like Paris and London is its juxtaposition of scale. Architects learned to comfortably build skyscrapers next to townhouses, Paul Whalen says. Parts of Hong Kong offer this too, particularly in and around Central where tall buildings are set against the greenery of Victoria Peak and traditional small-scale shops.
“There is a messy vitality to Hong Kong urbanism which I think is interesting,” he says. He is less fond, however, of large-scale development in other parts of the territory. “My least favorite part of Hong Kong urbanism is the very tall slabs of residential buildings that are all the same height and look just like the most efficientway to pack as many people as you can into a small piece of land.”
The worst of Chinese urbanism, according to Whalen, comes as a result of visionless repetition and a lack of thought as to how people might live in a community. “Instead it’s all laid out like a bunch of cars in a parking lot with everyone facing south,” he says.
This approach to building is widespread on the mainland too. But RAMSA attempts, with each new scheme, to fragment these buildings slabs down into varied scales, combining New York-style urbanism with the garden city movement of the 1920s and 1930s.
At an upcoming project in Shanghai Pudong called Emerald Riverside, RAMSA arranged a series of towers around a semi-circular garden courtyard. They placed retail around the edges on Changyi Road and incorporated a low arcade with residences that face the garden. Rather than place the towers in a row, the architects spread them out, opening them up to views of the Huangpu River and to southern light exposure, so that every apartment has a different view.
“Why live in something that’s like a file drawer and then go see beautiful urbanism in Paris, when you can live in the beautiful urbanism?” Whalen asks. Cost is one reason, but economic realities have always threatened to splinter the idealism of architecture. In China, the need to cost-effectively house millions of people will likely keep the slab buildings coming, while in urban centres like New York and Hong Kong, rising land costs will push developers to build ever taller and more exclusive projects.
Once the dust settles around Manhattan’s latest building boom, the supertall towers will remain. But, besides the long shadows they cast, it is not immediately clear what they will do to enhance the overall urban experience. In the meantime, Stern’s energy and enthusiasm continues. This is his last term as dean at Yale School of Architecture, but he has plenty to keep him busy. He is writing the latest instalment of a series of books on New York urbanism and continues to oversee the design of every project, from the initial meeting with clients through to setting the design agenda and making sure each project stays on track. To that end, he spends much of his day meeting with other partners and associates, to whom he occasionally defers.
“I’m fine with people saying, ‘Bob this isn’t a very good idea, let’s go with something else,’” he says. “Of course people are terrified to tell me that, but I get it out of them.”
This story appeared in the April 2016 issue of The Peak Hong Kong