Following a $17 million renovation by famed architect Robert A.M. Stern, the Kaufman Center's Merkin Concert Hall reopened this week with a gala concert that featured conductor Aaron Jay Kernis.
The prolific architect has also been working on a slew of other projects. Another newsworthy development in which he is involved: the overhaul of Hudson Yards on Manhattan's far West Side. Not only did Mr. Stern's firm design the proposal submitted by the Related Companies. to develop the 26-acre site, but his office directly overlooks the run-down rail yards.
Mr. Stern collaborated with others on a design for Related, one of five proposals the Metropolitan Transit Authority is considering, includes five residential towers, two of which would be made of glass. These glass-clad buildings are an unusual choice for the architect, who in recent years has been known for his classical, masonry-clad apartment buildings.
"I have nothing against glass," he told The New York Sun from the 21st-floor penthouse of the Art Deco-style building at 460 W. 34th St., where his offices are located.
It's a surprising admission for Mr. Stern. In the midst of a glass-and-steel condominium boom popularized by contemporaries such as Richard Meier, Mr. Stern, 68, has revived traditional architecture, making the classic New York apartment house not only new again, but also incredibly lucrative.
Mr. Stern's star rose in the wake of 15 Central Park West, the limestone residential tower developed by Arthur and William Lie Zeckendorf. The building amassed $2 billion in sales, becoming one of the city's most lucrative residential projects. Overseeing almost a dozen projects here and about 75 worldwide, Mr. Stern, whose firm employs 325 staffers, has designed five residential buildings now under construction for Related.
Last year, he was chosen to design the Museum for African Art, the first new structure on Museum Mile since the Guggenheim was completed in 1959, and recently he was selected to design the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Now one of the city's most sought-after architects, Mr. Stern has the ear of top developers.
"He has a very keen sense of what people enjoy in terms of extensive apartments and luxurious facilities," developer Larry Silverstein, who chose Mr. Stern to design a 60-story hotel-condominium hybrid at 99 Church St. on the former site of the Moody's Corp. headquarters, said. "He's done so many at this juncture and with such success that his body of knowledge in this regard is equaled by very few." Related's CEO, Stephen Ross, called Mr. Stern "one of the best people in terms of understanding an urban community."
Mr. Stern's signature design includes brick and stone facades, well-proportioned rooms, high ceilings, conservative lobbies, and structures that hug the street walls. He said he believes glass is better suited for commercial projects.
The dean of Yale's School of Architecture since 1998, he divides his weeks between Manhattan and New Haven, Conn. The author of 15 books, including a series examining New York City architecture and urbanism, Mr. Stern grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and studied Latin in high school. As an undergraduate, he attended Columbia College, and in 1965 he received his master's degree in architecture at Yale.
In a time when most young architects worked on suburban or rural homes, Mr. Stern's thesis project focused on the Whitney Museum of American Art, which Marcel Breuer was designing at the time. In 1969, after working briefly with Mr. Meier, he opened his own firm with a fellow student. Their projects mostly involved gutting grand pre-war apartments for buyers who thought the spaces were boxy and confining.
"We tried to make the spaces flow — that was the word we used — like modernist space in say a Le Corbusier house or apartment. Now I would like to go around and patch up all my errors and close the spaces back," the architect, who founded his current firm in 1977, said.
Influenced by Paul Rudolph and Robert Venturi, Mr. Stern became known largely for shingle-style homes and projects such as the Walt Disney Co.'s Feature Animation Building in Los Angeles. In 1995, he teamed up with Mr. Ross to design a brick apartment building in Battery Park City. Two years later, they collaborated on the Chatham, the Upper East Side building where Mr. Stern now lives.
"The word condominium for a long time carried with it the baggage of a slightly shady Florida operation," he said. "But the Chatham, from the developer's side, was the first condo to achieve comparable status to a Park Avenue building. On the architectural side, I think we proved that we could make a building that was a convincing continuation of the great New York classic apartment house tradition, but with bigger windows, a different arrangement of the apartments, and other amenities."
Experts say Mr. Stern's retreat into historicism was gradual and his commercial success has not come solely from his sharp design skills, but also from strong management, ambition, and a keen understanding of particular societal needs at a given time.
"He's become to architecture what Ralph Lauren is to design, an impeccable brand name for traditional things that are well-made for people who are not looking to be at the cutting edge, but care very much about quality and also want to feel as if they are of this time," the architecture critic for the New Yorker, Paul Goldberger, said. "Bob has proven that there is a market for intelligently conceived, well-executed traditional design that has a little bit broader appeal than might have been thought."