2017 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education
Architecture’s future depends on its next generation of leaders—and the educators who impact their lives. The Topaz Medallion honors those who educate others to ensure architecture’s enduring excellence.
Through his buildings, teachings, and prolific writing, Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, has demonstrated that architecture can be powerful and inspiring by bringing time-honored forms and proportions to bear on a modern world. In his role as an educator, most recently the dean of the Yale School of Architecture a position he held for 18 years, Stern’s impact on a generation of architects and ideas has been profound.
Recalling his time teaching at Yale during Stern’s second year as dean, Frank Gehry, FAIA, wrote “I kept coming back because I loved the environment that Bob was creating, and I loved being with all the people he was bringing together—both student and faculty.” That environment, marked by the inclusiveness Stern fosters, sees emerging architects given equal billing on architectural education’s biggest stages.
Stern’s commitment to architecture education began in his own days as a student. In 1965, as a master’s candidate at Yale, he edited a double issue of the school’s architecture journal, Perspecta, which featured excerpts of Robert Venturi’s seminal Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (ahead of the book’s publication), as well as essays by Philip Johnson and the architectural historian Vincent Scully. His talents as a writer, editor, and historian have followed the entirety of his 50-year career and Stern has penned a number of books, most notably his series that surveys the last 100 years of New York City’s architectural heritage and was hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as “an unprecedented record.”
After opening his own practice in 1969, Stern returned to his alma mater Columbia University as a lecturer and taught at the school consistently for more than 20 years while holding a number of additional posts. When he accepted the position of dean at Yale, Stern stuck to the university’s tradition of open-minded debate and implemented a non-stop schedule of visiting professors, exhibitions, and symposia that attracted many of architecture’s brightest minds to the school.
Stern has flourished in his role, writes Scully, “because his reputation as a scholar and teacher acted as a magnet and drew many of the best teachers and critics of every stripe to Yale, encouraging the students to think it all through for themselves.” And, he notes, “It was Stern’s enormously intelligent ability as an organizer that carried this off.”
Yale’s program seeks to present students with every opportunity, and Stern has stressed availability of digital applications while still reinforcing the importance of drawing and hand-built models. With his advocacy and fundraising leadership, he led the $126 million restoration and renovation of Paul Rudolph’s Art & Architecture Building by commissioning Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects. His legacy at Yale has been documented extensively through the publication of catalogs for all 50 exhibitions hung at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery during his tenure as dean, the school’s biannual journal, Constructs, and the 2016 publication of Pedagogy and Place: 100 Years of Architecture Education at Yale.
“I’ve seen the results firsthand,” wrote Mark Simon, FAIA. “The Yale students that my office has hired as the best prepared, most enthusiastic, and thoughtful of any from top institutions. With their rigorous schooling they are competent team players, but confident.”
True to his role as a steward of architectural education, Stern’s firm, the 300-person strong Robert A.M. Stern Architects, functions as an extraordinary teaching institution. Intentionally designed to provide a first-rate apprenticeship that is not simply a byproduct of the firm’s practice, the experience in the office has propelled many of its alumni to excellence.