Robert A.M. Stern is the Principal of Robert A.M. Stern Architects and Dean of Yale School of Architecture.
AJ: We would like, if it’s possible, to base your responses to both your experiences as the dean of Yale and your professional practice.
Graduate schools nowadays usually advertise their specialized programs in attempt to attract students and funds. What they usually end up doing, is to propose very specialized programs which inevitably create specialized technocrats. Plus, the general idea in architecture schools is that the architect must be a “renaissance man” with a generalist education, but in graduate schools what we see is strictly specialized education, programs like visualization, fabrication, BT, etc. Our question has to do with March programs which attract students that sometimes lack basic skills and directly go into very specialized programs. We would like to know your take on that, if you are for or against it, whether you think specialization is a trend and why.
R. Stern: I can’t answer all of the questions. You are asking me this as the dean of the architecture school, so I have to answer it as the dean of the architecture school. First of all, at Yale we don’t have that situation. We have three programs. We have what we call the Marchl, it’s for someone who has some or even no real background in architecture, comes out of typically American undergraduate colleges, with a BA degree majoring in everything from architecture to physics or history, and that program is three years long. Then we have a post-professional program, which has students who already have a bachelor of architecture degree. Historically, those students have come from American universities and abroad but more from America. Today that becomes less and less the case. Partially because many American schools do not offer the bachelor of architecture any more and they have gone to what is called the four plus two year plan. Obviously they want to keep their best students to go from the 4 year college where they get a BA or a BS to the graduate 2 year to get the March. Last, we have an advanced program called the MED, stands for master of environmental design which maybe a misleading title, but it’s for people who can have architecture degrees or not even, who want to pursue some kind of independent research for 2 years. In any case, the real answer to your question is that we don’t have specialized programs, we only are a school of architecture. It once, until 1968, had a planning department, it doesn’t have that now, it has no landscape architecture program, no urban design program and we believe in training people in the skills of architecture when they come in, and mostly to have a think about architecture, to see architecture as a means of thinking. Of course, we like to think we are training these leaders for the profession, who will be able to be a “renaissance man”, a term which is slightly out of fashion, so I would call them leaders who are generalists. In a table of specialists often the architect is the generalist. Of course, there are people developing specialties.
AJ: How would you define the real generalist?
R. Stern: A generalist is someone who can through the processes of his thought, through the collection of his knowledge easily make connections between seemingly diverse things and bring people together and ideas together, to create a synthesis. A building really needs to be synthesis. A building needs to represent many diverse strands of attentions from the technical ones that are built in it, to the technical ones that are run in it, and the programs that are performed in it, and the different problems of paying for it, financing it, etc. That’s what it’s all about.
Of course, we are generalists but people specialize in my professional office. One of my partners, Alex Nimus, who has a BA degree from MIT 25 years ago and a master’s degree from Columbia when I used to teach, decided to make a specialty of libraries. He is interested in technology and he got interested in the problem between the new electronics and the libraries as traditional building types so he as made his specialty of libraries but he did not go to school, to Columbia or MIT, to specialize in library architecture which would be preposterous.
Pinup: Do you think that the generalist exists? Even if the generalist exists, it is really the generalist that drives this profession? Is really the generalist in this large pool of specialists able to first of all find a job, find a good place in the architecture industry and then push himself in higher levels of leadership?
R. Stern: You are asking me an awful lot of questions. People who have a talent or skill very often find their way into places or positions of responsibility in any field. First of all, I don’t like the work architecture as an industry, it’s a profession. If a student in an architecture school is allowed to pursue for two or three years of his/her time some narrow focus, urban housing or something like that, I would say that that student is being misled. Architecture school is so short, it used to be longer, even when I was in school it was four years, after four years of college. So, I think you need to be challenged from different sides. I can only speak of how we do it in Yale because we have a core curriculum, of course, we learn basics, we try to introduce the idea of habitation as a concept in one term, small public buildings as a responsibility and a challenge for architects, and a way to get their hands on certain complex relationships. We have a term called urbanism where we have students do what you might call urban design (but we don’t like that term because it’s a misused term), and then we have advanced studios where they are these famous professors who come in and you can take a class with Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jaquelin Robertson, and Demetri Porphyrios. That’s how we do it.
You are asking a person who is a generalist likely to succeed in the profession. Well, I would say the first thing is that, in school you learn how to think about architecture, you learn certain working methodologies, you learn how to draw, and you learn how to run a computer these days, and you learn the craft and some of the art of architecture. But I do not believe that schools should substitute for professional education. So the first and most important thing a student has to do when he/she leaves school is get the right job. Students don’t always get the right job. They don’t always listen to old guys like me, and I didn’t always listen to old guys when I was a student either.
AJ: What is the right job?
R. Stern: The right job is to probably to go to a bigger office and not necessarily to the office that is doing the work you think you are going to be doing twenty years later, but doing the kind of quality and exposing you to the diversity and practices, the things that happen in architectural project. The problem is that many students, often the most talented, want to work for some small young architect who is five years older than they are who don’t have any idea what their doing more than the student themselves.
AJ: But some of them might be widely published.
R. Stern: Oh yes, today especially, you can be published for just going to the men’s room or the ladies room, it’s ridiculous. In any case, to come to your skills and your destiny as an architect over more years than are represented of just being in school you need to know how to manufacture your opportunities and to move in. But one of the most important things is to pick the right architecture school. You also have to pick the first job you have because it can determine the entire character and the course of your career.
AJ: Do you believe that students decide to become specialists because of the competitive market and because they try to get a better job?
R. Stern: No. I don’t know what the market is but we have 150 people working so I guess I am part of the market. When we hire someone who comes out of an architecture school, whatever school, they are people who can think, who have tried different things, who are fresh, free and smarter and more talented than I am. Yes, we hire specialists too. I need a structural engineer, we hire the best structural engineer, we need an environmental consultant, we hire the best environmental consultant. You name it: Lighting designers, landscape designers, whatever. The last thing I want is specialists. Of course, when we hire someone who just got out of school we realize that the first three years those people are going to in our office having their second three years of architecture school. That is fine. But I would like people to come out of architecture school knowing, for example, that things have measure, which is a big problem now. Most students have no idea how big anything is. If you ask them how big it is they don’t know because they see it on a computer screen, it has no scale. So that’s a battle I fight as a dean and a school and I fight as the leader of a large architectural practice.
AJ: So, an academic education provides you with architectural thinking whereas an education you get from an office familiarizes you with the problems and issues in the profession.
R. Stern: Yes, but if you are in a good office you would be taught things also like how to handle a difficult client. There is no right or wrong, it’s about human dynamics. The architect who sits there and says no it has to be this way and pound the table and has a terrible temper usually doesn’t get anything accomplished. He is just a jerk. You need to see that as a young architect. You learn those things from older architects and from being in a good office where you should be invited to the meetings and sit maybe in the back row and see how it happens. It’s not just happening at the desk. Very often the decisions, incredibly important, are made between an architect and his consultants and sometimes the consultants and the client altogether on a table. We walk in with a sketch or a proposal and it comes out looking totally different. It doesn’t mean anybody is compromised. Everybody has learned.
AJ: That is very interesting because it completely goes against what some of us read about architects today who are persistent and are considered very heroic.
R. Stern: Frank Gehry that I know pretty well builds the zaniest buildings of ever, but he is a very practical guy, he doesn’t pound his hands on the table. He brings people along. If you look at a competition that Frank Gehry enters or any good architect, Rem Koolhaas doesn’t make any difference, the technical problem that the clients asked is perfectly solved. So these are little things that I can say a thousand times in architecture school, Frank Gehry has said it a thousand times at Yale, and students don’t somehow want to hear it, but when they would come in an office that’s another part of their education. Schools are very important to give you a chance to limber up, to get your creative juices running, to measure up against other people of your age, to develop relationships with other students who will become your professional rivals and colleagues throughout your life. And that’s why it’s very important to go to a very good school. Because if you are surrounded by the best and brightest, those are the people you are going to put up against as you are competing.
AJ: Another question we had in terms of legalizing: what we call specialization has to do more with licensing some firms to work in specific types of projects. Meaning that, Robert Stern is licensed, for example, to build labs whereas Diller and Scofidio are not.
R. Stern: Licensed? No, there is no such thing. As an architect you are licensed to practice architecture of any kind.
AJ: I know, I am not saying there would be such a thing in the present, I am asking about the future.
R. Stern: Oh, that would be the worst thing imaginable! Zaha or Bob Stern should be allowed to design all kinds of buildings. I work very hard to go after projects just because I haven’t done projects like them before. But, we have done few laboratory buildings and we work with people who design the labs; we are not sitting there pretending to be experts on lab planning. There are people, some times architects, and some times from other disciplines, who do devote themselves to specialization.
AJ: So you approve of that in this particular situation? You approve of the existence of the specialist?
R. Stern: Of course, I approve of specialized experts but I don’t approve of them studying lab planning in architecture school. This is something you come to. If you came here and worked for five years or ten years on houses, for example, you might say you are starting to become a specialist in residential architecture. We do a lot of campus buildings and campus plans, so we could say we are becoming specialists on that. Some people really enjoy a special kind of work, and I would propose to continue to do it. I am a more restless type, the leaders are often more restless. A guy like Bill Peterson of Kohn Peterson Fox does all these office buildings. All he wants to be asked to do is embassies, university buildings or houses. I have done some houses and quite a few midsize projects so I’m thrilled very now and then I get a chance to do a skyscraper. I fight against being pigeonholed in specialization, bit if I am going to do a skyscraper, we are working with teams of people, engineers and others, who know much more about skyscrapers. However, it’s not rocket science, you can get it, you can pick it up pretty fast. But there are millions, parts of it that are very specialized. For example, curtain wall design. There are people who spend their lives, engineers some time architects, studying how walls perform, new materials and so forth. All of this is great but in an architecture school you need to have an idea that all of this exists in the world or architecture. You need to be acculturated to the fact that it’s the architect who is the leader of a complicated team (the architect might have been in the 18th century a person who does everything), and you may be as a leader a person with the artistic spark that sets the whole thing to function.
AJ: Do you think that schools should train project managers?
R. Stern: Not in the three or four years have in an architecture school. But you can become introduced to the problems and possibilities of project management if you have seminars where you have to get up and give a talk and you have to answer the questions of your fellow students and the professor and you have to interact. At Yale, all the students in first year compete to build an affordable 1,500SF house. Every student designs his own house over a weekend for the site, then students are put into teams and the teams get bigger and they ultimately compete. Every one of the four teams competes and the final competition has already made a set of drawings. Then they go out to the field. They are hammering and they are working on the other side of the table. So they look at architecture from the production side. Some students have shown management skills and some students have shown draft skills; it comes out in the process. But we don’t have a course for that. We are far from that.
AJ: It is almost like providing the students with some basic skills, survival skills in the profession? I am kidding.
R. Stern: This project so called Yale-building project started in 1967 by the architect Charles Moore. Students wanted to add a more special engagement, so he cooked up the idea that students would build an affordable community. Initially, they were community centers and later they were camps for boy scouts and finally homes in New Haven. For 14 or so years students have built in New Haven, so there are 14 houses in the small city of New Haven each designed one a year and build which are occupied by first time owners, people who have never been able to buy a house. It’s a very interesting experience. That make for leaders, because somebody had to lead these teams and everything has to work, has to be organized; but we don’t have a course on it.
AJ: What do you think about this trendy adoration of form nowadays? Form deriving from the computer…..
R. Stern: Well, architects are always looking for the new Jesus. They also want to find some new way that will somehow release their creativity. So whether it’s history or the technology of the electronics, or the technology of long span structures, or prefabrication, or whatever, people are always looking for new gods. And I think that’s true of us all as we go through life that we still need also to pay attention to the old god in general as opposed to the new gods, to the basic values of fine construction and have that to be the genesis of architecture. Of course, the new forms that are emerging in the computer are interesting; much more interesting to me is the new fabrication techniques and the new relationship between designer and fabricator that the computer will make possible. At Yale we have new digital equipment to further explore computer as simply an extension of the traditional tools of building.
AJ: That is not how specific designers use those tools. They use them as the means to synthesize.
R. Stern: There are some designers who view it that way and some who don’t. Greg Lynn teaches at Yale and he manipulates the forms through the computer. He also likes to go down to the shop and see all the stuff we make down there and likes to play with that too. There are always new ways to explore architecture and new ways to evolve form. Some of them really do create new situations and some of them are just new shapes.
AJ: Why would someone whose architecture derives from historical architecture, someone like Bob Stern, accept the recruiting of Greg Lynn to the faculty?
R. Stern: Because, first of all, I don’t believe that an architecture school is an academy or an office. I would hire Greg Lynn but he would have to do my work here in the office, but in Yale I hire him to be Greg Lynn. That is the reason why I think Yale has a successful way of approaching the basic issues you ask, because we don’t have specialization. The great experience of a student is to take Leon Krier one term and Greg Lynn the next term. Students also stand in the studios and see projects from each of them being debated and then we put on a jury Greg Lynn and Leon Krier. Instead of having just Leon Krier talking all people who believe the way Leon does and Greg Lynn talking all people who believe the way Greg does this is much more interesting, to have the dynamic; because the world is not simple. This is not the medieval world in France where nobody knew anything else beyond 50 miles more or less, this is the modern world. The modern world is full of contradictions, and contradictions are fine because you learn from them.