Monday, March 04, 2013

William Stern 1947 - 2013

In addition to being an outstanding local architect, Bill Stern was one of my favorite teachers at the University of Houston College of Architecture. He even wrote letters of recommendation for me when I was applying to graduate school. So I was rather saddened to learn about his passing late last week:
William F. Stern, FAIA, an architect who spent much of his life thinking about places, died Friday, in precisely the place that he wanted: in the house that he designed for himself; surrounded by a carefully curated collection of art and friends; and in Houston, the city that exhilarated and exasperated him. He was 66.

On Thursday, the American Institute of Architects-Houston voted unanimously to give Stern its Lifetime Achievement award.

"Everyone had assumed that Bill Stern would be named sometime in the future," said executive director Rusty Bienvenue. "But we assumed that it would be many, many years in the future."
Until January, when Stern was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he was a force to be reckoned with in Houston's architecture and art worlds: a member of the Menil Collection's board of trustees; a "Master Mod" in Houston Mod; frequently vocal about the preservation of endangered historic buildings; a frequent advisor to the AIA-Houston; and previously involved with the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Rice Design Alliance.

In his architectural work, says architectural historian Stephen Fox, Stern "was known for rigor, clarity, consistency and economy." He was also known for doing battle in the name of aesthetic principles.
"A willingness to hold fast-that was a hallmark of both Bill's architecture and his civic work," said longtime friend Elizabeth Glassman, president and CEO of the Terra Foundation for American Art.
"He was so wonderful to argue with," said Bruce Webb, a friend and professor in the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, where Stern taught architectural history.
The above quotes almost make it sound like Stern was a combative ideologue, but that's not the kind of person he was. He did have strong opinions when it came to design and he wasn't afraid to share them, but he was also personable and pleasant. He was an excellent instructor - although I only took one course from him I think it was the most informative class I took as an architecture student - and he enjoyed being with his students such that at the end of the year he invited all of us to his house for dinner and drinks:
Completed in 1992, Bill Stern's own house, at 1202 Milford, marked a break from his past. The design was clearly contemporary. Stern designed the museum-like house around his art collection, including a Sol LeWitt piece painted directly on the front wall of the three-story living room. "That house," says David Bucek, Stern's partner in the firm, "is Bill."
The house, as well as the artwork within it, is very cool. I hope that it will be preserved.

I think the last time I saw Stern was one a flight to Europe eleven years ago. The ex and I were on our way to Germany and the Czech Republic to visit family. He was on his way to Istanbul to see the architecture. I always assumed I'd run into him again someday. Alas...
William Frederick Stern was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on January 15, 1947 and passed away in Houston, Texas, on March 1, 2013, after a brief illness.

Bill received a Bachelor of Arts, cum laude, from Harvard College, and a Master of Architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

After beginning his career in the New York office of Edward L. Barnes, Bill moved to Houston in 1976 and founded William F. Stern & Associates, Architects in 1979. In 1999 he and long-time associate, David Bucek formed Stern and Bucek Architects. Bill served on the Board of Trustees of The Menil Collection in Houston and the Collections Committee at the Harvard Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A dedicated teacher, advocate and leader, Bill was adjunct associate professor at the University of Houston for nearly three decades. He has served on the board of the Rice Design Alliance and was a founding editor of its publication, Cite, for which he received the Texas Society of Architects' John G. Flowers Award for Excellence in Architectural Journalism. In addition to many contributions to Cite, Texas Architect and other publications, he was an editor of Ephemeral City: Cite Looks at Houston, published by The University of Texas Press in 2003.

William Stern is survived by his mother, Mrs. Joseph S. Stern Jr.; his brother Peter J. Stern, M.D., both of Cincinnati; his sister Peggy S. Graeter of Potomac, MD.; six nieces and nephews, and one great niece.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the William F. Stern Fund, The Menil Collection, 1515 Branard, Houston. Texas 77019. Memorial plans are pending.

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