There’s an anonymous drawing in “Pedagogy & Place,” the current exhibition at the Yale School of Architecture (YSA), purportedly sent to the school’s dean, Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, around the time he assumed his post in 1998. It features two images, side by side: on the left, the muscularly ultramodern Paul Rudolph structure from 1963 that houses the YSA; and on the right, a “renovated” version of the same, done over with classical columns and tacked-on pediments and swags. Its satirical message—that Stern, perceived by critics as an arch Postmodernist, would remake the school after his own historicist image—is as clear and keen today as it must have been nearly two decades ago.
But the unknown author of that visual broadside clearly missed the mark. As Stern, now 76, prepares to step down from the deanship this May, he presides over a program even more architecturally diverse and progressive than the one he took charge of before the turn of the millennium. And the iconic YSA building, while still a challenging and controversial one in certain circles, is in far better shape than it’s ever been, following a $126 million restoration that may prove Stern’s most lasting legacy to the school that’s been his academic homeland since he began his studies there in the early 1960s.
“Our approach has been pedagogy without ideology,” says the dean. Sitting in his orange-carpeted office, framed by the bush-hammered concrete that gives Rudolph Hall its rough, brooding glamour, Stern expanded at length on “Pedagogy & Place,” which chronicles a century of architectural education at Yale. The dean organized the exhibition (until May 7) with co-curator Jimmy Stamp, a YSA graduate and a writer with the firm Stern founded, Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA). “It’s a history of architecture in the 20th century,” Stern explains, “but a special kind of history because of the nature of the school, which is unique among schools of architecture in that it has these attachments to fine arts and graphic design.” Stern has remained committed to the conception of the YSA as an interdisciplinary workshop—an “American Bauhaus,” as one segment of the show calls it—and that concept has ensured that the school’s design thinking has remained fluid and pluralistic throughout his tenure.
Beginning as a department within the School of Fine Arts in the late 19th century, the YSA evolved under the supervision of a series of ambitious, forward-thinking directors into an intellectual incubator for the field at large. As the current exhibition spells out in a sequence of wall-sized, chronologically organized displays, every major trend that’s swept through the profession—from the Beaux-Arts to Modernism, from Brutalism to PoMo—has passed through New Haven, often heralded by dramatic philosophical and political debates. In the late ’60s, students rebelled at the rote exercises that clogged the curriculum, and banners and manifestos (culled for the exhibition from what Stern calls the school’s archival “morgue”) call for strategies of engagement and critique; by the ’90s, the decay of the surrounding cityscape prompted a new emphasis on urbanism, attested to in drawings and diagrams that show the school turning outwards in its practical and theoretical focus.
As the show’s title suggests, Stern and Stamp view these pedagogical developments as inextricable from the buildings in which they occurred. In the ’50s, when the school was housed in the upper floors of Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery, “there were these collaborative studios revived by Kahn,” Stern says, the building acting as a purpose-built vessel for the architect’s open-ended approach to teaching. Years later, when the pre-eminent scholar Nikolaus Pevsner lambasted Rudolph Hall (then called the Art and Architecture Building) during its dedication ceremony, he signaled a break between the “high” and “late” phases of the modern movement. “I was there,” recalls Stern. “Rudolph tuned beet red, and he said to [historian Vincent] Scully, ‘I think I’m going to leave now.’ ”
Although celebrated today as a visionary teacher and designer, Rudolph, dean of the YSA from 1958 to 1965, relinquished his post during that turbulent period. Stern, on the other hand, will hand the reigns over to longtime faculty member Deborah Berke, FAIA, amidst an atmosphere of general institutional harmony. He has managed that feat in part by his embrace of disparate architectural attitudes, not the least of which is Rudolph’s own: His complex, light-filled structure is “a building of great importance,” says Stern, who saw to it that the restoration was shotgunned to completion between 2007 and 2008 so that no YSA student missed the chance to study in it. Stern’s open-mindedness has become integral to Yale’s academic culture, evident in the visiting professors (Peter Eisenman, FAIA, Frank Gehry, FAIA, and Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, to name but a few) that he has helped hire.
So much, in fact, has Stern become identified with Yale that it’s almost difficult to imagine one without the other. Certainly Stern hasn’t exactly been eager to compose the coda to his Yale years: When it came time to compose the section of the exhibition dealing with his tenure, “I told Jimmy to write it,” says Stern; his co-curator declined, and Stern managed to strike a suitably objective-yet-positive note.
Indeed, a couple weeks after the show’s opening, the architects Elia Zenghelis and Marion Weiss, FAIA, and the historians Kenneth Frampton, Assoc. AIA, and Anthony Vidler, were in Rudolph Hall’s grand sunken conference room taking a break from an end-of-semester crit. When Stern appeared at the top of the stairs, everyone cast their eyes upward, as the dean greeted the audience from his banistered perch with a mock-pontifical air. He lingered there, plainly reluctant to leave.
Stern and Yale won’t be separated for long. As per university policy, the outgoing dean will take a semester off to give his successor “some breathing room,” as he puts it, and then will likely resume the teaching duties he’s performed at the school on and off since 1970. In the meantime, it isn’t as though he’ll have nothing to do: RAMSA has grown into an office of some 300 people, with the volume of commissions rising considerably during his tenure at Yale. “When I was asked to be the dean it was about the right time anyway to give some of the younger people in the firm some autonomy,” recalls Stern; major projects in the office’s recent portfolio, from entire neighborhoods in Hong Kong to private homes in the Hamptons, have been undertaken by veteran partners charged with heading up work on specific building types. (Employee retention is something of a house specialty: Senior partner Paul Whalen, AIA, has been with the firm since 1981; his colleague Daniel Lobitz, AIA, since 1986.) His periodic absences “have really given them a chance to fly,” Stern says, “and I think that will continue,” even with the nominal chief hanging around the studio two more days a week.
The opening of the Yale exhibition coincides with the publication of City Living (Monacelli Press, 2016), which features RAMSA’s apartment buildings—further proof, if any was needed, that Stern’s academic career hasn’t slowed down his activity as a designer. The sumptuous projects in the book, often heralding back to the grand high-rises of the early 20th century, also serve as a reminder of Stern’s own architectural tastes. The cartoonist who lampooned the dean all those years ago had reason to wonder what the YSA might become under his watch. But Stern, as ever, has shown that he is nothing if not adaptable, and the most significant personal imprimatur he’s left on the school is a reflection of his own capacity for growth and change.
What the future holds for Yale—what Deborah Berke’s panel in “Place & Pedagogy” might look like—is anyone’s guess, but Stern says he’ll keeping pacing the winding hallways of Rudolph Hall as long as they’ll let him. “I can’t imagine myself not teaching,” he says. “But at some point my students are 25, and I’m … not.”