I grew up on Long Island in the 1960s while it was still going through a period of heavy residential development. Nascent architecture geek that I was, I would pore over the house and apartment plans that appeared each weekend in the real estate pages of the New York Times and Newsday. While my friends played outside I stayed home drawing my own plans for imaginary clients; one of my favorite partis arranged rooms on one floor around an open-air atrium a la the more architecturally daring – though regionally incongruous – houses going up in my neighborhood. I couldn’t yet drive, so my dad – not an architect – indulged me by giving up his Saturdays to take me through the newest high-end model houses under construction.
My interest in architecture went dormant in high school but was rekindled with a vengeance by the battery of classes I took in college – beginning with Vincent Scully’s lectures on modern architecture and urbanism. Scully was electrifying and inspiring; each week he opened new worlds to someone with a narrowly proscribed sense of what architects and architecture could achieve. After that semester I switched my major from German (no kidding!) and took every course that I could in history and theory to obtain the academic foundation that I had come to believe was so essential in this profession and its art. I thought – rightly as it turned out – that I would best learn the more practical and applied aspects of architecture to some extent in graduate school, and in actual practice after that. Through it all I’ve retained my initial passion for the design of places for people to live in.
2. Who have been your biggest professional and personal influences?
Bob Stern, first and unquestionably. I’ve been fortunate to learn from Bob in both academic and workplace settings: as my critic in graduate school (Columbia) he advanced an architectural sensibility informed by history and tradition, context and use; as my boss and, subsequently, my partner, he has set the standard for representing and “selling” our architecture to the public in general and to clients in particular. Not least, as an inveterate aficionado of the good life Bob embodies the sense of enjoyment and delight that I think courses through the best house designs.
In addition I’ve learned an awful lot from my other partners and colleagues at Robert Stern Architects. I’ve spent virtually my entire professional life at RAMSA; as we’ve grown from a small office with mostly residential commissions to a large multifaceted one with work across the globe, I’ve continued to concentrate on houses and apartments but with an appreciation of the increasingly diverse interests and skills that make up the firm, underlie its many building types and, inevitably, inform the work that I do.
The influence of my clients can’t be underestimated. I think my most successful projects have had clients who were the best communicators – about what they didn’t like as much as what they did. Since they’ve been so involved in the design process they end up taking not only physical, but also emotional ownership of the finished product.
3. Describe one of your most memorable projects.
In Montecito, outside of Santa Barbara, we were asked to design a house and related outbuildings for an elaborate Italianate garden setting that was built in the 1920’s. The garden was organized axially along a stepped tiled allee flanked by planted terraces, and descended from a large flat pad towards distant views of the Pacific. Whatever house had originally been intended for the top of the garden had never been built; fortunately our clients shared our vision of a Mediterranean villa – more Italian than Spanish – of an appropriate scale and with just the right degree of formality to complete the ensemble. As we began the project we convinced the clients to spend ten days with us in Italy: first to visit Palladian villas in the Veneto, followed by gardens (and their villas) in the hills around Florence. What we all learned on that trip not only influenced the planning and details of our design, but also strengthened our conviction that it wasn’t meant to be a mere replica of some Renaissance villa weirdly transported in time and space to California. Instead, we created a very American house that’s of its time yet timeless, reinterpreting the historic precedents that inspired it yet inexorably tied to its site and formally defined by its functionality. It fits my sense of what determines a California “style.”
4. How do you define “California style?”
An advantage to living on the East Coast is that I’m at some remove from the more mundane aspects of California life; as a result I tend to look at the design possibilities there through an impressionistic and romanticized lens. I think that California “style” is defined by its qualities rather than by any specifics of form or material: it has an easy flow from space to space and between inside and out; it derives much of its integrity from material textures and the play of sunlight on color. This style embodies seemingly divergent influences: it incorporates formal precedents without sacrificing informality; it combines a sense of playfulness with a fundamental architectural gravitas so that one complements and strengthens the effect of the other. California style can be as grand as any other, but it’s not pretentious.
5. Tell us about Designs for Living: Houses by Robert A.M. Stern Architects.
Every few years the firm publishes a book that showcases its most recently completed houses. In Designs for Living we decided to modify our customary format in order to make the book less anonymous and more personal. Currently at RAMSA there are four partners who have spent a good part of their time on houses and apartments. Each of the fifteen houses featured in Designs for Living begins with an introductory essay by the partner in charge of the project, describing the process by which the clients and he arrived at the design as well as some other fun facts that typically don’t find their way into architectural monographs. In so doing we hope to give the public a better sense of who we are and how we work. Another feature of the book is a round table discussion of the four “house partners” with Paul Goldberger which, I think, shows how much we do in fact have in common in terms of values and sensibilities, while still maintaining our individual architectural personalities.
6. What’s your ideal vacation destination and why?
This won’t take up too much space: Italy. It has incredible architecture, great food and the shopping is unsurpassed. Its countryside is never far from its cities, nor are you ever more than a couple of hours away from the seaside.
7. Describe your ideal Sunday.
The work week is fairly intense and often involves travel. If I want or need to go back into the City over the weekend I’ll tend to do this on Saturday; generally I like to spend Sundays recharging close to home. As an ideal Sunday is 65 degrees at 7am I start the day with a bike ride. I’m a dedicated slow biker and can cycle at my own pace for an hour or two in a large nature reserve nearby that has virtually no topography, really smooth bike paths and little to look at except marshes, trees and birds. After that I spend the rest of the morning with coffee and theTimes, beginning with the crossword puzzle and saving the news for last. Lunch is with my wife Cricket, grazing out of the kitchen and taken on the screen porch. If I’ve brought work home I try to do it in the afternoon and before 4pm, when either or both of our [grown-up] children might drop by and come out with us to walk our two dogs. Dinner is on the grille, or take-out sushi. After dinner an hour or so of TV or Netflix depending on what’s being offered by each; John Oliver is on pre-record for another night. A book (English mystery or some history of cities) before lights out. No drama.
8. First concert?
The Supremes (I was 13 or 14 and asked for tickets as a bar mitzvah present).
9. Favorite pizza topping?
10. Favorite movie?
It’s a tie: The Big Sleep and Caddyshack.
11. Favorite book?
Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone (I love the English spelling of “judgment”).