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A starchitect writing the history of yesterday and tomorrow, an interview with Robert A.M. Stern

Q: Many have referred to you as the architect who inspired the term “starchitect.” How would you describe your personal brand?

A: It’s true I have been labeled a star architect, but I am not interested in the star approach typical of many talented architects who design buildings as if they were self-portraits.
Instead my partners and I hope to stand for a seriousness of purpose, scholarly approach, commitment to quality, responsibility to the community and to the environment. We seek to honor our brand—with the full knowledge that getting the brand right is tricky, and making every effort to be sure that it evolves appropriately in the face of new challenges. We’re always worried about it and we don’t take on a project if we don’t think it’s suitable for the brand.

I do not desire for every one of my buildings to look alike or display my individual stamp.

Q: What do you think about branding for architecture?

A: I am interested in how you have a brand that is based on a personality. And then what happens when the personality disappears – whether the personality retires, like Calvin Klein, which happens a lot in fashion, or dies, like Coco Chanel. We still have Chanel as a brand. So what does that mean? Now what about architecture? Certain brands existed in architecture long after the progenitors of an identifiable approach. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, or SOM, is a brand. In this office we’ve been thinking about Robert A.M. Stern Architects, and then almost by accident RAMSA appeared as the short acronym that was on working drawings and in contracts. So now Robert A.M. Stern Architects/RAMSA is, in a way, a brand. This is something my younger colleagues and I think about a lot as I get older and they move forward into the future.

Q: What would you say RAMSA stands for as a brand?

We don’t have an equivalent of the little black dress. Quite the contrary.

A: Our many different kinds of “product” range from houses to office buildings, to residential buildings. We seek an appropriate individual identity for each. Our brand seeks to unite the work and to share an attitude. For many architects, design is an applied science, an exercise in systems technology. We respect technology and seek the very best systems to realize our designs, but we stand for architectural design that has a strong foundation in the history of architecture; that moves the story forward incrementally rather than by explosive leaps and bounds.

So you can come to us and know that your project will have its own history but also be confident that you are buying something that has deep roots in the traditions—dare I say, the culture?—of architecture.

Q: How does the RAMSA brand compare to others in the profession?

A: Not every architect or designer is by talent or inclination inspired to connect; many seem intent on piling breakthrough upon breakthrough. They seem more interested in breaking the mold than anything else. Typically, these are what Mies van der Rohe derided as “Monday morning architects.”

There are a few in architecture who break the mold in such a profound way that they do create an iconic brand based on a singular approach

A great example of an architect who broke the mold is Zaha Hadid. But it will be interesting to see how Zaha Hadid’s firm’s work will remain consistent to her vision despite her untimely passing.

Q: The Seventh Art produced three branding books for the iconic 20 East End Avenue project. We created them for the sales office, to familiarize prospective buyers with the project’s narrative. One of the three books was dedicated solely to you – entitled “Process,” it explained how the building came into being and RAMSA’s design process. How would you summarize RAMSA’s signature process?

A: The narrative in the branding book is typical of how we work in general. We work in teams, with studios led by design partners. At 20 East End Avenue my partner Paul Whalen led the team in close collaboration with our partner Michael Jones. My job is to work principally at the conceptual level and then to monitor the progress of a design, a process that continues until the ribbon is cut and frequently even after that. I think people are interested in how we work, in how we translate a series of sketches and models into working drawings, and to see to it that the buildings fulfill a wide range of expectations—our clients’ come first but also the expectations of the public.

Even before we begin design, we carefully research the neighborhood in which our building is to take place.

We research historic precedents, which may have nothing to do with immediate context but a lot to do with the kind of building we’re designing.

Q: Seventeen books have been published about you and your firm’s work. It would be an understatement to conclude that the public is fascinated by you. From your perspective, what do you think onlookers find most intriguing?

A: Our books make it possible for others to delve into our work process and to look at the repertoire of details that we have developed over the years. They want to see how our team works together but we also acknowledge that clients need a design leader. Of course there are many people who work together within the relationship between clients and architects—and we strive to have enduring relationships with our clients so that they will remain loyal to our brand. Some architects like to be seen as authoritarian figures, imposing their vision on the client. And some clients like that; they want to be told what is good.

Then there are clients that like to be cuddled. We are the cuddlers.

Q: Can you elaborate on branding for institutions and what are the impacting factors?

Sometimes an institution will break from their brand and build something that is unlike what people would expect. In this case, branding is a synonym for “style.”

A: Mixing up styles on a college campus, for example, sometimes works, opening up the conversation, symbolizing broadening horizons. But often it doesn’t work. If you depart from what you have established over a long period of time, it can add spice to the stew, as it were, with some new flavor—as Yale did in the 1950s and 1960s. But if you add too much spice you are likely to compromise the integrity of the whole. It depends on the degree of departure, I suppose, and the quality of the departure, and the timing of the departure. Those are things I think about a lot: the degree, quality, and timing of departures from an established brand—or within the brand, which is the hardest to pull off.


*This is an excerpt from the upcoming book by The Seventh Art’s founder, Michel Mein: “Branded by design: Construction at the Intersection of Architecture and Branding”