Architect Robert A.M. Stern: Presence Of The Past

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Friday, February 21 • 10:30 p.m.

As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, renowned architect Robert A. M. Stern would gaze across the river at the gleaming towers of Manhattan. To him, the city looked like Oz. Today this former outsider is arguably one of its wizards. But Stern’s architectural wizardry is not about creating flashy futuristic cities. Most of his buildings are clothed in styles from the past. In fact, they fit so well with nearby older buildings that you might walk right past without noticing them. “I don’t believe buildings have to be showy ‘me too’ structures,” says Stern. “I think one of the great responsibilities and pleasures of architecture is to extend the language of a place.”

Architect Robert A.M. Stern: Presence of the Past, a profile of the noted architect, airs Friday, February 21 at 10:30 p.m. Stern is the 2011 recipient of the Chicago-based Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture. This $200,000 international award, administered by the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, recognizes architects who create classical and traditional work.

In Architect Robert A.M. Stern: Presence of the Past, host Geoffrey Baer introduces viewers to this unforgettable larger-than-life personality, always impeccably dressed in fine suits, his trademark yellow socks and Gucci loafers. Even as he commands an army of architects at his bustling New York firm, he somehow finds time for two other jobs: dean of architecture at Yale and prolific author whose tomes are measured not in pages but pounds. He’s outspoken, witty and brilliant, with a lifelong love of Broadway musicals and Fred Astaire. Critics and colleagues say he can be frustrating and even infuriating, but by all accounts it’s impossible not to like him.

In the documentary, Baer traces Stern’s rise from working-class boy to up-and-coming architect (part of a wave that challenged modernist orthodoxy) to his current stature as a leading voice for traditional design and planning. The program features selected Stern-designed buildings — including the limestone clad “pre-war” style high-rise residential tower at 15 Central Park West, where the ultra-rich and luminaries such as Denzel Washington and Sting bought up condos totaling a record $2 billion. Viewers see how Stern brought downtrodden 42nd Street back to its former glory. The program includes a wide range of Stern’s other work, such as stately mansions and seaside summer homes, a surprisingly modern obelisk-shaped glass tower in Philadelphia and his town plan for the Disney-developed “new urbanist” community of Celebration in Florida. Architect Robert A.M. Stern also visits a work-in-progress, the Museum for African Art, where Stern’s client Elsie McCabe Thompson (whose only previous building project was remodeling a kitchen) explains how Stern is bringing her dreams and vision to life.

Woven through the documentary are excerpts from a nearly two-hour interview with Stern in his New York office. In his conversation with Baer, the architect is blunt and often very funny. Cameras also captured rare footage of Stern in action, working with design teams on such projects as the new George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU and residential colleges at Yale. Baer also interviewed acclaimed architects Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Stanley Tigerman and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and eminent critics Paul Goldberger (New Yorker) and Blair Kamin (Chicago Tribune), who praise and pan Stern’s work and give insights into his character.

Architect Robert A.M. Stern: Presence of the Past puts Stern’s work in the context of a larger debate among modernists, traditionalists, and those who embrace all styles as the context requires.  The end result is a new understanding of Stern’s unique contributions to America’s architectural landscape.