Architype: A Stern Rejection

Philadelphia seems to be stuck with the Robert De Niro of architecture, and we deserve better.


The controversial rendering of Robert A.M. Stern’s design for the Museum of the American Revolution.

I’ m starting to think that Robert A.M. Stern is the Robert De Niro of architecture, and not just because the two New Yorkers have names that trouble copy editors. It’s the professional inconsistency — a disconcerting whiplash between knockout performances and efforts one could charitably term “phoned in.”

Of course, the stakes aren’t the same: De Niro’s embarrassing (but ephemeral) turn in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle matters far less than, say, Stern’s design for the (theoretically permanent) Museum of the American Revolution. Panned by critics, the design also spurred an angry online petition. The Philadelphia Art Commission sent Stern back to the drawing board for a redesign of what they called his “mishmash” — with help from a Commission committee created especially to guide him.

That’s quite a comeuppance for the dean of Yale’s architecture school — the head of an eponymous 300-
person firm who’s had a dozen books written about him. He’s won all the prizes, been on all the juries — there’s nothing left but the crying. Only it’s Philadelphians who are doing the crying.

Stern is, apparently, our starchitect. Oh, sure, we’ve got an I.M. Pei here and a Viñoly there, and a couple Pellis floating around or in the works. But there’s no other out-of-town, big-name architect who’s done so many large-scale projects here: the Comcast Center, GlaxoSmithKline, Drexel’s LeBow Hall, the Navy Yard’s Master Plan, the McNeil Center, 10 Rittenhouse, One Crescent Drive, Chestnut Square … and now, in addition to the MAR, he’s been picked to do 1601 Vine Street. (If you’re not careful, he might redesign your house when you’re not looking.)

Why do developers keep hiring him? It’s certainly not because we lack local talent. Philly is flush with high-caliber architecture firms with the chops for large-scale projects: Erdy McHenry, KieranTimberlake, KlingStubbins and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, among many others. Haven’t developers heard of “Buy local”? Does no one shop at Weavers Way?

Of course, Stern has international name recognition and a reputation for being congenial to a client’s preferences, even if it means churning out ho-hum design. It’s not as though the Mormons hired him for 1601 Vine because they were dreaming of Gehry in Bilbao. They wanted just what they got: uninspiring and inoffensive.

But Stern is capable of more, as we can see locally from the Comcast Center and Glaxo. That makes the MAR design — with its “Disneyesque” cupola, as one critic put it — especially distasteful, like watching
De Niro trade dialogue with 50 Cent in a movie by the director of Soul Plane.

There are surely those who think we’re lucky to have Stern so engaged with the city, but I don’t see it that way at all. Instead, I feel like we’re stuck in an endless loop of Meet the Fockers sequels — and we need a better casting agent.

Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.