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James Polshek Believes Architecture Has an Obligation to Nurture--the Antithesis of Ayn Rand's Howard Roark

An interview with the celebrated American architect.

James Polshek's career and unique new book, 'Build, Memory,' will be celebrated Tuesday May 6 in New York City.(Slide Show of key buildings included.)

Hundreds will honor James Polshek tomorrowMay 6,  at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in the American Museum of Natural History. They come to celebrate his 60-year career as a visionary and a humanitarian, and to mark the publication of his 512 page tour-de-force  Build, Memory. The book is a work of graphic nonfiction unlike any other. It is both visually compelling and an intimate, historical-political memoir of design representing a half century of dramatic social change.  Build, Memory is fueled by an unflinching commitment to both architectural excellence and the community and clients for which he served. 

[Editor's Note: A slide show of 11 buildings Polshek designed can be found at the end of this  article.]

Who is the Architect?

For many, the contemporary architect is perhaps a bit mysterious, but nevertheless a narrowly perceived figure: an individual hunched over his or her desk creating either “masterpieces” or urban clutter. But nothing could be further from the truth. The successful architect has to be the quintessential renaissance figure. The creation and rebuilding of most major structures includes all the elements of a major political campaign: martialing resources, opinions and expertise; all unified by a strong vision.  It is often necessary to mobilize dozens of influential people, navigate bureaucratic mazes and stubborn institutions (like Landmarks Commissions and volatile interest groups), community boards and neighborhood "contrarians." And no one has done it with quite the élan or persistence and commitment to a set of fundamental ideals, as Polshek.

His approach and vision sets him apart from architects with elaborate signatures. He is unlike the hyper-egotists responsible for looming skyscrapers, which increasingly puncture the fabric of cities, disregarding those who will use the buildings as well as the passers-by who cringe under their shadows. Virtually all of Polshek’s dozens of creations are public buildings – some for audiences to experience thrilling cultural experiences, like the Santa Fe Opera, Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Museum. Others serve the needs of communication and the environment, like the New York Times Printing Plant and perhaps the world’s most aesthetically pleasing Wastewater Treatment Plant at Newtown Creek in Brooklyn. Others serve a community’s passion for education like the Rose Center and the Lycée Français de New York on the east side of Manhattan.

Of course, most of us love to be inspired by great design.  But many of us want an iconic building to be a part of something larger; to better serve its surrounding environment and provide comfort to its users.

Most of Polshek’s buildings look radically different from each other – if you are looking for a signature, a brand or singular style, you are out of luck.  This is because each project is a unique collaboration where the ultimate vision of the architect is a product of the client, the location, a community’s aspirations and the people who will use it.

One of his preferred challenges: weaving new “fabric” into old and often historic structures. The most dramatic examples include the Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Hall and the New York State Bar Center in Albany. 

The Book Reflects the Life 

You could say that the adage, “the mix is the message” is a notion that applies both to Polshek’s work and to the structure and appeal of this both grand and intimate book. In his 60 years of working in the field, he consistently wove his unique mix of high standards, creativity, drive, charisma and dedication to social responsibility and the public good. All his buildings reflect that, but with every building comes a unique story of all the multitudinous factors that created them.

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