Architect Robert A.M. Stern has visited Charleston often, as far back as when it was hard to buy a drink on Sundays.
“That was my most difficult visit,” he jokes.
His visit next week should be one of his easiest: On Tuesday, Stern, head of one of New York’s largest architectural firms and dean of the Yale School of Architecture, is scheduled to receive from the College of Charleston an honor recognizing his body of work as a modern traditionalist.
The award is named for legendary Charleston architect Albert Simons, whose approach to architecture was not unlike Stern’s: an approach that Stern describes as “refreshing the present by dipping into the past.”
In architecture circles, there are two main awards: the Pritzker Architecture Prize, usually awarded to architects whose designs are overtly modern, cutting edge, unlike anything built before.
Stern says it’s an award “for people who make buildings that look like nobody has seen anything like them before and perhaps will not see them again because they’re so idiosyncratic.”
That’s been around since 1979, while the Driehaus Prize, which Stern has won, has been awarded since 2002. Notre Dame’s School of Architecture gives out the prize to complement its classical curriculum and advance the principles of the traditional city.
Stern notes most of the nation’s prominent commissions go to architects whose work is of a more “modernist orthodox trajectory,” one that would vie more for the Pritzker.
Stern finds Charleston is remarkable not only for its preserved buildings but also for how its narrow streets intersect in odd ways that can discourage driving. “It’s a pedestrian city,” he says, “almost by force.”
Ask Stern what’s his favorite building in Charleston, or among those that his firm has designed, and you’ll get push back.
“There is no reason one should have a specific favorite building. That’s just the ‘starchitecture’ thing that annoys so many lay people and certainly annoys me as an architect,” he says. “Certainly, I like being well known as an architect. I like to get work. But I don’t really want to be known as a ‘Johnny One Note,’ having done one building.”
Stern is getting honored here, though his firm has not seen one of its buildings built so far in the peninsular city, though RAMSA (as Stern’s firm is known) has designed two buildings in Columbia and three on Kiawah Island, most recently the Ocean Course clubhouse.
The firm did design a hotel project and a Simons Center expansion that weren’t built, and its design for the first phase of Courier Square, in the early stage of construction at Columbus and Meeting streets, will be his big debut. The mixed-use project is being developed under a long-term lease on land owned by Evening Post Industries, the parent company of The Post and Courier.
Evening Post Industries selected Stern among a handful of firms because it wanted a classical design that would fit into Charleston’s tradition.
Stern says the design responds to the different contests of Meeting Street and the grittier, more industrial railroad line to the rear. That facade reflects a broader tradition of old warehouse and mill buildings.
The facade on Meeting Street is designed to be grander. “Office buildings aren’t the most interesting building types, but we’re trying to make it a good citizen,” he says, “and one way to make architecture be a good citizen is to have a very open and forthright relationships to the street: shops, windows that look out onto the street.”
Stern says he hopes the building will reinforce the street while providing a kind of wall of privacy between what happens inside and what happens outside.
And an important architectural move will be to hide parking.
“We say in our office, ‘Form follows parking.’ If you can’t solve the parking problem, it doesn’t make any difference what your building is like, it will be destroyed by a sea of shiny monsters around it,” he says. “We need parking, but we can’t let it destroy our streets.”
Stern, who is winding down his tenure as Yale’s architecture dean, says architecture can be a wonderful career “if you want to be a good player in a repertory company ... If you’re thinking of going into architecture to be a star, maybe not so good.”
“I don’t see architecture as being a barometer for the changing weather of the moment,” Stern adds. “I think architecture should be about the long haul, and the long haul in architecture is about making wonderful places, to wit, Charleston.”
Stern isn’t the only national figure who plans to visit and talk at the College of Charleston this week.
Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, will lecture on “Preservation in the 21st Century” at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Simons Center for the Arts, 54 St. Philip St.
Reach Robert Behre at 843- 937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.