Bringing architecture into the public eye

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Architecture, as Robert A. M. Stern knows, is not a breakfast food, but he is prepared to merchandise it as ``the stuff of dreams.'' Through books, teaching, designing, and now as host-and-creator of the current PBS television series ``Pride of Place,'' this architect has broached the subject from every possible vantage point.

Starting last week (March 24), Mr. Stern's series of eight programs singles out this element of civilization called architecture for the first time on American television. With this public television package comes, pro forma, its ``companion'' book, ``Pride of Place: Building the American Dream'' (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, $34.95).

For all the media flourish of sponsors Mobil, et al., and for all the personalized approach of the narrator chatting his way across the country with his friends, Stern speaks of a profession that is on the periphery.

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The series eschews the word ``cities,'' he told the Monitor, because the concept is tedious. ``Nothing will get people to turn off their TV faster,'' he says. ``They immediatedly think of burnt-out cities.'' Therefore, urban America gets tucked under the title ``The Garden and the Grid.''

Frederick Law Olmsted, the great landscape architect and creator of New York's Central Park, receives more than a dozen citations in the index of the book but is an unknown quantity to most people.

``People who use it [Central Park], think nature was there,'' Stern says.

``What is amazing, as you go to these towns,'' Stern says of his 100 or so site visits, ``is that people get to know a lot of local history, but not national.''

Go to, say, the Adams family historic site, he says, and ``they don't tell you about the architecture.'' The information is genealogical, political, historical, but the environs as place -- as in ``Pride of Place,'' to be specific -- never issue from the mouths of the guides.

No Sir Kenneth Clark in terms of Old World elegance or Carl Sagan in terms of popularizing a complex body of knowledge through suave scientese, Stern has the awkward intensity, the intelligence, and, at times, the wit and articulateness to complement the skillful camera work and impart enthusiasm to the architectural TV travelogue.

Sitting in a Boston restaurant the afternoon after the premi`ere episode, Stern describes his on-camera role as the corollary of his design or writing.

First, he draws the sketch, then others work on it, and finally the architect limns the final look or words. This applies to any medium, be it television or book, house or corporate container.

In his books (``New York 1960''; ``George Howe: Toward a Modern Architecture''; and ``New Directions in American Architecture''), Stern says he writes the first draft, then elaborates on versions ``4, 5, 6, or 9'' with two or three helpers. In his office in an old industrial building overlooking the Hudson, he collaborates with some of his 40 associates in much the same way.

For all the personality parade implicit in this one-man series, Stern insists that architects, or, more pointedly, the early modernist architects, have tried to be too heroic, to rise too high above their role of servant.

Their real task, he says, is less as the conscience of the community than as the embodier of the dreams of others. Julia Morgan, for instance, made the visions of William Randolph Hearst concrete at San Simeon.

Stern hopes that ``Pride of Place'' will attract a wide audience to architecture as a whole. In fact, he sees a second architectural series due this fall, with narrator Spiro Kostof, professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, as ``three times as good as [his] one program.''

There will be, he expects, a media multiplier: ``People will say `Architecture. We've got to know something about it.' ''

On television which ``has a life beyond itself,'' Stern pictures reruns and more reruns. ``I'd like to see people arguing about this at the breakfast table,'' says the sometime dreamer. Perhaps architecture is a breakfast food, after all.

Jane Holtz Kay is an architecture critic.

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