Stern and the City

The architect and historian completes his epic five-volume survey of the Big Apple.

Bigger than the Manhattan Yellow Pages and weighing in at just under 11 pounds, New York 2000 (Monacelli Press) is the fifth and final volume of Robert A. M. Stern’s award-winning series on the city’s architecture, urbanism, and interiors from the Civil War to the millennium. Despite the book’s heft, the narrative sails along at an impressive clip as it surveys the period from the mid-1970s to the present, which saw New York transformed from a city on the verge of collapse to a model of prosperity and renewal. (September 11 and its aftermath are addressed in the epilogue.) Stern and collaborators David Fishman and Jacob Tilove studied thousands of projects in all five boroughs; and they devote a separate section to interiors encompassing everything from the luxury restaurants frequented by junk-bond traders in the 1980s (Mr. Chow, anyone?) to downtown loft living as epitomized by Alan Buchsbaum’s 1978 design for Rosa-lind Krauss’s Soho apartment. Recently Metropolis editorial director Paul Makovsky spoke with Stern about the book, how the city has changed over the past 30 years, and the legacies of Post-Modernism, Donald Trump, and eighties nightclubs.

The book begins on a bleak note, in 1977—the year New York suffered a major blackout, bombings by a Puerto Rican independence group, a helicopter crash on the roof of the Pan Am building and, to top it all, the Son of Sam serial killer.
It wasn’t a good year.

Is New York the phoenix that rises out of the ashes?
Oh yes. In 1975 the city was virtually bankrupt. President Ford did not want to bail it out. New York had been declining throughout the sixties and early seventies. People began to lose faith in the city, and didn’t want to live here. Gradually the city began to regain its footing financially and psychologically. Ed Koch gave it a spurt, and certainly Giuliani and Bloomberg got things moving. We ended up concluding the book in 2000.

What are we beginning to see architecturally that makes the city more livable?
One major trend is that a much higher premium is placed on interesting architecture, however you define it. Today, some people are grumbling that interesting architecture means that you have to be “not an American”—but that’s another issue. New York is home to very interesting buildings by important international architects, some of whom are based in New York, some of whom are not. Even the more ordinary types of buildings, which appropriately form the backdrop of the city, are also in better character. Developers are held to a higher degree of artistic ambition.

All the buildings, for example, that I can see out my office window—or will be able to see shortly—that are being designed and planned in Chelsea have some kind of ambition to contribute to the artistic vitality of the area. We’ve come a long way from the uniform, bland architecture of the white brick buildings of the fifties, sixties, and early seventies. Of course, history being what it is, there are people deeply nostalgic for those buildings, but that’s another story.

Jane Jacobs’s profound influence, especially in the public’s attitude at large is in some respects even more important. Her ideas, which were not necessarily against big projects, were often used to oppose any kind large-scale planning or building initiative. I see that changing very dramatically in the city beginning in the late nineties and certainly now in the post-2000 era, which is not really covered in the book.

An interesting example is the struggle to find the appropriate scale, and the appropriate adjustments between the local community and the larger needs of the city, at Atlantic Yards with Frank Gehry. It’s a highly controversial project, but in many ways the scheme is quite Jane Jacobs-like in its urban pattern. There are concerns about the scale and about public investment, but that represents a new, probably healthy development for the city.

You got a first-hand look at issues of housing development and livability in the early part of your career.
When I finished architecture school at Yale, in 1965, I worked for a year for the Architectural League, then under Mayor Lindsay during his campaign for election. Afterwards I worked for the Housing and Development administration. Lindsay was interested in the city as a livable place, and we really did investigate how we could modify the anonymity of the big housing developments. It was a frustrating time for the city: money was going away, and the Vietnam War, student unrest, and the riots at Columbia all worked against our efforts to make the city more livable, and to re-incorporate the balance between the different economic classes that had existed in the historic city.

But in the eighties Battery Park City began to realize that dream. If there is a project that is misunderstood by the intellectuals, it is Battery Park City. They see it as a boring, suburban thing that just happens to be 25 stories high. It’s a wonderful neighborhood. It’s not perfect, but this city is made up of many livable enclaves. Tudor City is a big insertion into the fabric of the city, but it’s also its own mini world. And then there has been all the redevelopment of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. So this is a very optimistic period. We are in a golden age now. The mayor is planning for thirty years out, and he’s hoping the golden age will last. I hope he’s right. But history doesn’t exactly support that.

What else happened in the eighties? We often think of it as an era of yuppie excess epitomized by big hair, shoulder pads, and Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech.
Absolutely. In the seventies, people were terrified and nobody came here. German tourists came here to see the degradation of America’s greatest city, so greed was good in that sense. Of course, for people that are left behind that is not good, but young people stayed in the city, and went out to nice restaurants wearing a nice dress or suit. People felt confident—as they do now—to invest enormous amounts of personal money in the city. Just think: the city is now able to contemplate actually building the Second Avenue subway. Can you imagine? I might live long enough to see that built.

Nightclubs, very big in the eighties, aren’t that popular in New York anymore.
The Palladium was an extraordinarily ambitious architectural undertaking, designed by Arata Isozaki. That brief moment of late-eighties madness is in the book, and it crumbles because of the drug culture and the money. But also New Yorkers are working so hard now that I don’t think they have the time to go to these places anymore. I don’t have time to go to them.

Everybody thinks I’m out all the time, eating at five-star restaurants and roaming from one nightspot to another, keeping up the image. Not true.

The boutique hotel, especially Ian Schrager’s Morgans, Paramount, and Hudson hotels, became something very much associated with New York.
Ian Schrager is a major tastemaker, and he reads the tea leaves of lifestyle brilliantly. He starts out with Studio 54 on the edges of respectability, we’ll say, and then he does the Morgans Hotel and on and on. Schrager is celebrated on one side and Donald Trump on the other. They get their space in the book appropriately.

How does the Donald fare in the book?
The book is not written in judgment. We try to keep the authorial voice down and turn to various critics instead. Donald Trump has had his ups and downs. Herbert Muschamp swooned over the Trump International Hotel and Tower, but at other times critics have been negative. We lay out the story and let you decide for yourself—or you can go back to the sources and read what other people have said, and finally you can go look at the building. Trump Tower was an enormous success and a great shot in the arm for the city. At first people said it was turning Fifth Avenue into a mall, but in the long run, anchoring that corner of 56th Street and getting Tiffany’s to stay there was very important. The Donald gets high marks for that. His other buildings are always a little more interesting than anybody else practicing that sort of run-of-the-mill development. And when he’s aimed high, he’s left his mark. The funniest story of the whole book is the one of him rebuilding the skating rink in Central Park after the city stumbled.

And what is that story?
The rink had fallen into disrepair and the city went on for over a decade trying to repair it. Donald Trump, who had this building which had as an asset a view of the skating rink, sent a letter to Mayor Koch saying, You can’t get your act together. And basically Trump took it over, got it remodeled in the proper amount of time, turned it back over to the city, and made the city look stupid. The Donald is amazing!

What about Post-Modernism and the buildings associated with it?
The great so-called Post-Modern buildings of the eighties did return the romance of skyscraper design. AT&T, and other buildings with glamorous tops and a strong civic presence at the bottom, opened up the door to making the city cultivate architecture like Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower. Each of the very large buildings cannot be just a filing cabinet for workers, but some sort of player in the great romance of the New York skyline.

How does Philip Johnson figure in this book, compared to the previous volume, New York 1960?
Philip figures in New York 1960, but he’s more important in a different way in the post-seventies era. In 1960, he’s just beginning to become an important architect—and, of course, he’s crucial to giving coherence to Lincoln Center as a development. He’s also crucial to the evolution of the Museum of Modern Art from a small side-street institution to a super-museum on a side street. But in the post-seventies period, the period of the New York 2000 book, he’s very important because of his flirtation with Post-Modern ideas and the subsequent revival of that style. At 1000 Fifth Avenue, he takes a very banal building and gives it a totally new identity. And the AT&T building becomes an extraordinary feature of the skyline. It’s not the tallest building in the world, by any means, but that broken pediment of the roof and the big loggia of the original building were amazing! Amazing!

What Philip’s buildings in that mode got us to do was to re-look at the past—our own past. The so-called Lipstick Building for Gerald Hines on 53rd and 3rd is, I think, a wonderful Modernist reinvention. Its shape is spectacular. It works with the street, yet is separate from the street. And it, again, opens the door for contemporary architecture like Norman Foster’s tower above the Hearst Building on Eighth Avenue.

How was Rem Koolhaas’s book Delirious New York received?
I think Delirious New York was a fantastic book. I don’t think the public really got into it, and the architectural world didn’t know quite what to make of it. But really what Rem was saying to the city was: Pull yourself together; recapture your glory and sense of purpose. I think that some architects, like myself, were influenced by it in a positive way. I probably never would have engaged with New York to this extent were it not for Delirious New York. I was already feeling liberated from Modernism before the publication of that book, but once I read it, I thought: If I get to have a skyscraper in New York, I’m going to have some fun. I haven’t gotten a true skyscraper—maybe a little teeny-weeny one at 15 Central Park West. But there I have re-engaged with the city in a way that I think is appropriate with the traditional spirit of the New York skyscraper, with the dramatic skyline silhouette, and with a real sense of confidence about the city and its block pattern and so forth.

You’ve also played an important role in the preservation of Modernist buildings.
Modernism is a historical style. We need to know more about the architects and thinkers who shaped that ideal, especially in post–World War II America, and then we’ve got to do a lot more to save those buildings. They are very hard to save for many reasons, not the least of which is the technical standards to which they were built. In respect to energy, for example, and the new materials and techniques that the architects experimented with—like the glass curtain walls at Lever House and the UN Secretariat—those buildings present unbelievable problems with regard to cost and sustainability. It becomes a really hard sell. The old nineteenth-century Soho buildings, with their high ceilings, big windows, and thick walls have proved much easier to preserve and are much more flexible.

The functionalist attitude from the twenties through the sixties is a crippling one for preservation because the buildings were built like gloves—fit to one purpose. Buildings should be more like mittens, built to allow future generations ample wiggle room.

Looking back over the last 20 years, what buildings or interiors would you landmark, and why?
That’s a good question, but I am not prepared to answer it. I’d have to do my homework first. About ten years ago, I made a list of 35 Modern buildings to save. The TWA Terminal was one of them, and it was saved—but I’m not sure if the spirit of the building was saved. The jury is still very much out on that one.

The saving of Grand Central Station is an amazing story, and that may be one of the most important things that happened in New York between the forties and today. It’s the crossroads of the city and it anchored and stimulated development in the Midtown area. The tragedy of Penn Station is that it could have done the same thing and, so far, it’s still not getting anywhere.

So what are some of the other prominent issues from this roughly 30-year period?
The book looks at not only Manhattan but all the boroughs. There are some really interesting buildings in the outer boroughs that you might not imagine—such as Jim Polshek’s public library in Queens, Peter Eisenman’s fire station in Brooklyn, and work by Theoharis David, an under-appreciated architect who has built a lot outside of Manhattan.

The whole transformation of Harlem and the South Bronx is amazing—not just the rising real-estate values of existing nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century buildings but the filling in of so much of the burned-out landscape of the mid-seventies with new and often owner-occupied housing.

And how does your work fare in all this?
Brilliantly, of course. It’s very interesting to write something like this and to come upon one’s own work, and I try to play it down. There are plenty of other books about my work—but I want to include it in as fair a way as possible. And I am proud of some our buildings, such as the Brooklyn Law School tower and the dormitory we just completed there, and the work we’ve done at Battery Park City and elsewhere.

We should note that the book is not just about big-name architecture but also urbanism, zoning, and infrastructure.
Yes. For example, we did a small section on the Third Water Tunnel, which when completed in 2020 will enable the city to close down one tunnel for repairs. It’s all underground, and it’s monstrously big and incredibly important—the equivalent of the Croton Watershed of the 1840s. These things are not always widely known, but everything is in the book! You’ll have to read it—page after page.

All 1,520 of them.
You’ll be on the edge of your chair. It’s not badly written, if I must say so myself.

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