Credit: Sioux Nesi
“There are usually 50 or 100 books on people’s desks at any given moment,” says Robert A.M. Stern of his firm’s collection of about 11,000 architectural tomes. “The library is the gateway to our architecture, conceptually. We do a lot of research—from both the aesthetic and technical points of view—in designing our buildings.”
Rare is the architect who lacks a cache of favorite books, often those picked up during school. But as New York–based designer and Yale architecture school dean Robert A.M. Stern notes, “You go to school for a long time, and then you go into an office, and you’re often cut off from that stimulation.” Stern’s own firm library numbers in the five figures. The morning Architect spoke with him, he had received a call from Peter Eisenman, who was trying to find a copy of the 1979 AD monograph Roma Interrotta for Michael Graves. Even though Graves had been the journal’s guest editor, he was without a copy—and neither Eisenman nor Stern had one. “People call me,” Stern quips about the chase. “I’m like a miniature Avery Library.”
What were the beginnings of your office library?
When I started in 1969, it was the books I acquired during school. A few volumes of the complete works of Le Corbusier, a book on Mies, Hugh Morrison’s book on Louis Sullivan. There weren’t a lot—maybe 25, 30 books. I’ve always had the architecture books in the office because that’s where I like to look at them, and I like to have people working on projects look at them. It’s grown to be quite sizable.
We have roughly 11,000 books. We might have a larger library than most architecture schools.
How is it organized?
Everything is on a computer system. Originally they were all on open shelves, and sometimes people loved them so much, they took them home and forgot to bring them back, which was painful. Now we have a lot of books on open shelves, but we have others locked away. We have a librarian, who will get the book for someone who wants it and then track it down to make sure it gets returned.
Was your librarian trained as such?
No, he’s an actor, but he’s been working here 10 years, and he knows our library and our system. We don’t catalog the books like in a scholarly or public library. But we have a way of cataloging them. He can find them.
How has the library developed?
In the 1980s, an architect died and left a library of 2,500 books, and we bought it. It was filled with titles I’d never collected, but I was very interested in them: the White Pine Series, monographs on traditional architects of the early 20th century, and so on. That was a great boost.
What’s the role of books in your office’s culture?
The library is for everybody to be stimulated. Sometimes it’s project-directed; sometimes it’s general curiosity. We try to hire people interested in the culture of architecture.
Who gets to make additions?
The librarian goes through catalogs and submits them to me. I mark up what we should order—new as well as older books. I reserve that particular activity for myself. Although people often go to the librarian and request a book. He checks with me, and it’s usually not a problem.
So you’re the final arbiter for acquisitions?
Somebody has to be in control.
How quickly do the books you’ve authored make their way into the library?
Immediately! They sit behind me, so people meeting with me will be able to see them. If I want to describe a project we’ve done, I can grab the monograph that covers it.
How do you budget for the office library?
There are others here who take care of that, but I know my partners think the library is a very important part of how we do business—how we conduct ourselves artistically and professionally.