James Stewart Polshek, quiet giant of modern architecture, dies at 92

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James Stewart Polshek, quiet giant of modern architecture, dies at 92
The William J. Clinton Library and Museum in Little Rock, Ark., designed by James Polshek, on Nov. 18, 2004. Polshek, who over a nearly 70-year career designed some of the country’s most significant works of public architecture even as he resisted the profitable allure of trendy ideologies and design celebrity, died at home in Manhattan on Sept. 9, 2022. He was 92. Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- James Stewart Polshek, who over a nearly 70-year career designed some of the country’s most significant works of public architecture even as he resisted the profitable allure of trendy ideologies and design celebrity, died Friday at his home in Manhattan, New York. He was 92.

His son, Peter Max Polshek, said the cause was kidney disease.

In an era when so-called starchitects dominated the profession, using their acclaim to pick up lucrative projects around the world, Polshek went the other way, embracing a modest approach to architecture that prioritized a design’s social value over its aesthetic worth.

“The true importance of architecture lies in its ability to solve human problems, not stylistic ones,” he wrote in 1988. “A building is too permanent and too influential on public life and personal comfort to be created primarily as ‘public art.’”

Such modesty did not keep him from rising to the pinnacle of his profession. His works include the William J. Clinton Library and Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas; the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan; the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico; and the Newseum in Washington.

From 1973 to 1987, he served as dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, which he transformed from a sleepy, conventional program into a world-class center for research and training, not just in architecture but in real estate and urban planning as well.

He was equally if not better known for his renovations and additions to historic buildings, including an upgrade of Carnegie Hall that took nearly a decade to complete and a new entrance to the Brooklyn Museum.

His Carnegie Hall project typified his work. The existing building was a tangled conglomeration of additions accreted over decades, rendering it a confused warren of stairways, nooks and useless crannies.

He untied the hall's Gordian knot, not by slashing through the maze with Alexandrian gusto but by cleverly knitting together its various pieces to make a coherent whole, with a style that was at once vibrantly modern and respectful of the hall’s long history.

“Carnegie Hall was tricky because it was about being invisible, about making it function like a modern building and still look like Carnegie Hall,” Paul Goldberger, a former architecture critic for The New York Times, said in an interview.

Polshek had a modernist sensibility, but not in a rigid, ideological sense. Rather, he drew on the modernist movement’s earliest impulses toward a depersonalization of style and a commitment to social justice.

“I had it drummed into me from an early age that personalizing everything was not a good thing,” he said in a 2001 interview with the Times. “Besides, I don’t think that kind of commodity-driven system makes for the most productive architecture.”

If Polshek was less well known among the general public than architectural celebrities like Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid, he was beloved by critics, who saw in his humane, understated approach an antidote to the ego-driven design that often dominated postwar American architecture.

One of his earliest projects, completed in 1970, involved renovating and expanding a row of town houses in Albany to house the New York Bar Association. It won praise for its sensitive use of historic preservation at a time when most architects and developers preferred to tear down buildings and start from scratch.

It was, wrote Ada Louise Huxtable, then the Times’ architecture critic, “an object lesson in how to build intelligently, sensitively and well.” She added, “It is nice to know that someone is doing something right.”

Thirty-five years later, critics were equally enamored with Polshek’s design for the Clinton library, part of which cantilevered 150 feet toward the Arkansas River — a metaphor for the bridge that the Clinton administration provided between the industrial age and the information age. Working with Richard Olcott, an architect in his firm, Polshek insisted that the project include the reimagining of a decrepit railroad span that ran along its southern edge; once converted to a pedestrian bridge, it provided easy access to the museum for a low-income community across the river.

“It breaks the mold of the presidential library even as it builds an extraordinary bridge between past and present, architectural object and urban context,” Blair Kamin wrote in The Chicago Tribune. “The monument to the ruler also benefits the people.”

Such gestures were important to Polshek, who often referred to architecture as a “healing art,” by which he meant an endeavor that sought to improve people’s lives and not boost their egos.

Another of his early projects, and the one he later called his favorite, was a mental health center in Columbus, Indiana, a small town south of Indianapolis that had amassed a world-class collection of postwar architecture.

The center was supposed to sit alongside a tree-lined creek and adjacent to a hospital, but Polshek had a different idea: He built it over the creek, as a bridge, connecting the hospital to a public park and offering serene views of the water flowing underneath.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Polshek never adopted a signature style, nor did he attach himself to a particular movement. He was an admirer of architects, like Eero Saarinen, who sublimated their own aesthetic impulses to the needs of their clients and the contexts of their projects, especially renovations.

“Some people think it’s too eclectic,” he said of his approach in a 2014 interview with Architectural Record. “But the buildings reflect a preference for taking old things and renewing them, with restorations and additions. It’s never been about self-aggrandizement.”

Some critics chastised Polshek for being too cautious, especially in the 1970s and ’80s, when postmodernism created a mania for retro design, and later, when architects like Gehry won renown for their daring, if sometimes belabored, personal styles.

Work like Polshek’s “is Business Class architecture, not world-class architecture,” Herbert Muschamp, another critic for the Times, wrote in 1995. “It seldom risks greatness.”

Polshek was unmoved; for him, aesthetics were of secondary importance to a building’s social function.

“Modern abstractions or nostalgia cannot themselves generate ideas for structures of lasting value,” he wrote in 1988. “Only buildings that serve broadly defined social, political or cultural objectives can achieve this.”

James Stewart Polshek was born Feb. 11, 1930, in Akron, Ohio. His father, Alex, owned an Army-Navy store, and his mother, Pearl (Beyer) Polshek, was a homemaker.

At first, he wanted to go into medicine. But at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland, a class on modern architecture persuaded him to change majors.

Unhappy with the academic offerings in Cleveland, he transferred to Yale in 1950. On the way to his interview, he stopped in New York City to see the United Nations headquarters, then under construction. He entered a service elevator and found himself standing beside Le Corbusier, the famous French architect, who was helping to lead the project. To him, it was a sign that he was headed in the right direction.

In 1952 he married Ellyn Margolis, who survives him. In addition to her and his son, Polshek is survived by his daughter, Jennifer Polshek; his sister, Judy Polshek Goodman; and two grandchildren.

Polshek studied with Louis Kahn at Yale and graduated in 1955 with a master’s degree. The next year, he and his wife moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he studied on a Fulbright fellowship. He later said that his encounter with Scandinavian architecture, with its collaborative approach, inspired his own understated, egoless design philosophy.

After returning to the United States, he worked for several architects, including I.M. Pei, before opening his own office in 1963. Among his first projects were a pair of research facilities in Japan, which took him to Tokyo for two years, and a community center in midtown Manhattan, designed with Walfredo Toscanini.

“It is an excellent and exciting project, as creative remodeling with a purpose can, and should, be,” Huxtable wrote in a glowing review of the center in 1970. “This is no monument. The visitor who goes looking for the ‘architecture’ in the sense of an impressive aesthetic statement, with everything in its assigned place and proper, predetermined relationships, may wonder what it’s all about.”

Polshek’s renown and the size of his firm grew, but the economic downturn of the early 1970s sent him looking for other work. In 1973, he was named the dean of the Graduate School of Architecture at Columbia.

He oversaw a thorough revamping of the school’s curriculum, updating and expanding it to include urban planning, real estate and historic preservation; he even added the words “Planning and Preservation” to the program’s name.

Polshek and his firm did almost all their work in the United States, much of it in New York City. Their projects there also included the Seamen’s Church Institute, at the South Street Seaport; the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine and Residence Tower at New York University; the Ed Sullivan Theater; Sulzberger Hall, at Barnard College; The New York Times’ printing plant in Queens; and a wastewater treatment plant along Newtown Creek, between Queens and Brooklyn.

Polshek received the 2018 Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects, the group’s highest honor.

Polshek retired from his firm, by then called Polshek Partnership, in 2005. In 2010, the firm reconstituted itself and changed its name to Ennead, which is Greek for “the nine,” a reference to the number of its remaining partners. Polshek embraced the change as a declaration that architecture was never about a single individual, no matter how famous.

“A question frequently asked of me is, ‘How can you do all that wonderful work?’” he said in an interview with Architectural Record in 2000. “The answer is, ‘Easy, I don’t.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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