As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, renowned architect Robert A. M. Stern would gaze across the river at the gleaming towers of Manhattan. To him, the city looked like Oz. Today this former outsider is arguably one of its Wizards. But Stern’s architectural wizardry is not about creating flashy futuristic cities. Most of his buildings are clothed in styles from the past. In fact, they fit so well with nearby older buildings that you might walk right past without noticing them. “I don’t believe buildings have to be showy ‘me too’ structures,” says Stern. “I think one of the great responsibilities and pleasures of architecture is to extend the language of a place.”
WTTW’s Geoffrey Baer and producer Daniel Andries will profile Stern in a new 30-minute documentary, Architect Robert A.M. Stern: Presence of the Past. The program will premiere on WTTW on Thursday, March 24 at 8:00 pm. The documentary coincides with Stern’s winning of the Chicago-based Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture. This $200,000 international award administered by the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture recognizes architects who create classical and traditional work.
In the film, Baer introduces us to this unforgettable larger-than-life personality, always impeccably dressed in fine suits, his trademark yellow socks and Gucci loafers. Even as he commands an army of architects at his bustling New York firm, he somehow finds time for two other jobs: Dean of Architecture at Yale and prolific author, whose tomes are measured not in pages but pounds. He’s outspoken, witty and brilliant, with a lifelong love of Broadway musicals and Fred Astaire. Critics and colleagues say he can be frustrating and even infuriating but by all accounts it’s impossible not to like him.
In the WTTW documentary, Baer traces Stern’s rise from working-class boy to up-and-coming architect (part of a wave that challenged modernist orthodoxy) to his current stature as a leading voice for traditional design and planning. The program features selected Stern-designed buildings -- including the limestone clad “pre-war” style high-rise residential tower at 15 Central Park West, where the ultra-rich and luminaries like Denzel Washington and Sting bought up condos totaling a record $2 billion. Viewers will see how Stern brought downtrodden 42nd Street back to its former glory. A wide range of Stern’s other work is included in the program, such as stately mansions and seaside summer homes, a surprisingly modern obelisk-shaped glass tower in Philadelphia, and his town plan for the Disney-developed “new urbanist” community of Celebration in Florida. WTTW cameras also visited a work-in-progress, the Museum for African Art, where Stern’s client Elsie McCabe Thompson (whose only previous building project was remodeling a kitchen) tells how Stern is bringing her dreams and vision to life.
Woven through the documentary are excerpts from a nearly two-hour interview with Stern in his New York office. In his conversation with Baer, the architect is blunt, brilliant and often very funny. WTTW cameras also captured rare footage of Stern in action, working with design teams on such projects as the new George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU and residential colleges at Yale. Baer also interviewed acclaimed architects Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Stanley Tigerman and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and eminent critics Paul Goldberger (New Yorker) and Blair Kamin (Chicago Tribune) who praise and pan Stern’s work and give admiring insights into his character.
This program puts Stern’s work in the context of a larger debate among modernists, traditionalists, and those who embrace all styles as the context requires. The end result is a new understanding of Stern’s unique contributions to America’s architectural landscape.
Architect Robert A.M. Stern: Presence of the Past is written and hosted by Geoffrey Baer, and produced and written by Daniel Andries. Original score: Nicholas Tremulis. Associate Producer: Sara Medlin. Director of Photography: Matthew Howe. Audio: Marc Hoppe. Additional camera: Tim Boyd, Daniel Andries, Tom Brunstetter. Additional audio: Larry Williams, Jr. Editor: Paul Thornton.
Geoffrey Baer is a multiple Emmy Award-winning producer and program host for WTTW in Chicago. He is best known as the host and writer of WTTW’s popular feature-length specials about Chicago architecture and history including Chicago’s Lakefront, Chicago by Boat: the New River Tour, Chicago’s Loop: a Walking Tour, and Chicago by ‘L’: Touring the Neighborhoods, as well as six programs covering virtually all of Chicago’s suburban areas. He took viewers on a culinary tour in The Foods of Chicago: a Delicious History, which was nominated for a coveted James Beard Award, and explored the surprising side of the city in Hidden Chicago. His seventeenth special, Biking the Boulevards debuted in the fall of 2010. Mr. Baer also appears regularly on WTTW’s flagship nightly public affairs program Chicago Tonight answering viewers’ questions about Chicago architecture and history in a segment called Ask Geoffrey. Look for an all-new tour program, Chicago’s Loop, to premiere on WTTW in late November 2011.
Daniel Andries has been a producer with WTTW since 2000. His work over half a decade as Series Producer of Artbeat Chicago, WTTW’s weekly arts magazine series, earned a number of Emmy Awards for himself, the show, and its producers and hosts. His 2006 hour-long documentary Beauty Rises: Four Lives in the Arts won two Emmys, two Peter Lisagor Awards, and a Silver Plaque from the Chicago International Television Festival. Other work on the arts includes Remembering Ed Paschke, arts reporting for Chicago Tonight, Executive Producer for Arts Across Illinois and producer of Arts Across Illinois: CenterStage. Daniel previously worked with Geoffrey Baer as producer of Chicago by Boat: The New River Tour and The Southwest Suburbs: Birthplace of Chicago. Other credits include Out & Proud in Chicago, Irish Chicago, and DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis.
For more than 55 years, audiences have turned to WTTW for distinctive programming that informs, inspires, educates, and entertains. WTTW reaches 1.5 million weekly households over a four-state area, making it the most-watched public television station in America. Recognized for its award-winning local and national productions, WTTW is committed to presenting the very best in cultural, nature, science, public affairs, and children's programming across its four distinct television channels: WTTW11, WTTW Prime, its Spanish-language channel WTTW V-me, and WTTW Create, its “how-to” channel. For more information, please visit www.wttw.com.