15 CPW: Bob Stern In Fine Form
There's nothing we love more than a good argument over Bob Stern. When we were graduate students at Columbia University in the mid-1990s, everyone avoided having him for design studio, thinking that he would make everyone design in historical pastiche. One semester, I sat adjacent his studio; low and behold his criticism was insightful, pragmatic, and informed by experience. True, he was a shade conservative, and positively curmudgeonly, but he never failed to call bullshit when contemporary architectural theory failed to produce what it said it was supposed to produce. For that, I secretly admired him. He was asking the same questions I was asking, even though the forms I chose to ask them in weren't the ones his office was producing. The students who were unlucky and got stuck in his studio mistakenly argued with Bob over simple formal machinations, without creating a concrete idea of what they were trying to produce; it was clear that Bob The Critic was formally agnostic (or perhaps omnivorous), so long as what you said you were achieving were the results you actually produced. I longed to bring him over to my desk and say "hey, I think I'm doing what you are asking for, but it looks different. What do you think?" As a wee student, I never had the courage to ask him.
And so we think that we get Bob. 15 Central Park West is case in point, Mr. Stern at his finest form, New York old money luxe created anew. When the game is to make a good apartment building, make it really, really good. Use the best materials, use layouts that work, take a stand for proportions and rooms that make all New York apartment dwellers drool, and make the developer figure out who to market it to to pay for the increased cost of the building. Of course Mr. Stern's first impulse is to use tried and true forms and details from long ago. And people are vocal about liking the building, politely admiring its historical aspects but keeping their distance, or really hating it for being a photocopy of another age (this last one we never really get, because unless it's an exact replica of another building, it's always going to be new and different. This is a debate for another time.) Guess what: the historical forms and proportions still work. In that they produce something people will buy, and be passionate about living in.
Of course, after taking the gorgeous fantasy trip through 15 CPW's apartments, motor court, classic dining rooms, and grand lobby, we are left asking: why can't it be done without using the historical cues? Can I have a not-so-dowdy bathroom vanity cabinet, and a kitchen that doesn't look like the one we have at the country manor? Can we keep the good proportions, well-designed windows, and great detailing, all the while giving us a little (or a lot) of the 20th Century's uncanny? Miss Representation perfectly encapsulates the problem:
...the failure of new housing to evoke the grandeur of a 30-foot long sitting room isn't really about limestone sheathing or how big the windows are: it's about whether or not your sitting room is 30 fucking feet long. And it isn't.
Like the students I remember in his design studio, architects doing new housing in New York make the same mistake. Some exceptions, of course, can be found in #s 1-5 at the Two Dozen list. In the majority of celebutante housing designs the design concerns are about twitchy wrappers, space-age materials, sharks with lasers, or whatever else is being used to keep one branded as cutting edge. This focus of attention is an astonishingly sophomoric failure to look at what makes living spaces great, pleasurable, desirable. Because Mr. Stern creates great living spaces, elegant entries, and uses his estimable powers as a persuader to cause developers to pony up for great materials, it's easy for him to stand out in this context. And whether you like his forms or not, you cannot deny that he has won the game he set out to play, a game we think is worth playing in every housing development the world over. We'll let you know when we see someone else step up too.
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