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Visions

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.

All of Polshek’s values and idiosyncrasies are also reflected in the creation of  Build, Memory. It is simultaneously a stunning coffee table book with almost a thousand images--a personal memoir that speaks to the values of collaboration, and serving people-- and a unique peek into the life of the architect as campaign director, community organizer, psychologist, historian and even geologist. It will no doubt be an inspiration for many architects to be.

I sat down with Jim Polshek in a conference room at Polshek Partnership, the firm that he built.  As we sat together I asked Polshek about the essential ingredients necessary for creating such a life:

Don Hazen (DH): “What should the public know about good architecture?”

James Stewart Polshek (JSP) : That is an interesting question but difficult to answer.  How does one define good?  I will attempt to do so by using two examples – both of which have been extraordinary influential: the first is my early teacher, Louis I. Khan; the designer of the Yale University Art Gallery and later colleague.  The second is the Renzo Piano Workshop where the emphasis is on craft, not art.  Like Khan, Piano’s intellectual rigor belies the material poetry of his work.  There is a modesty and generosity of spirit that comes through their personalities and animates their creations.  Obviously buildings have to function.  But they can also be experienced indirectly.  Their presence, especially in dense urban precincts, can affect the tone and mood of their particular circumstances. The “shock of the new” has no place in my catechism any more than does personal expression. 

DH:  So you’re the anti-[Frank] Gehry?    

JSP: That’s one interpretation. There are people who look at a building as an artifact and talk about it as “art," but serious architecture is ... well, the single most important word to me is 'healing.' That was going to be the title of the book, 'Healing/Buildings,' but editors were afraid it would go into the “Self-Help” section of the few book stores that are still open. 

 [Editor’s Note: Out the window of the conference room where we are sitting, we can see the nearly finished construction of the new downtown Whitney Museum by Piano.] 

The Anti-Howard Roark

Polshek’s attitude is in stark contrast to the “hero” architects of the past – particularly Frank Lloyd Wright.  For the general public, Wright is still probably the only recognizable architect name. And then there is Howard Roark, the fictional architect centerpiece of Ayn Rand’s hugely discredited but still popular worship-of-the-wealthy novel, The Fountainhead

JSP: Yes, I saw the movie version of The Fountainhead in my late teens.  And a few friends still believe that is the reason that I chose to become an architect.  But that’s not true at all.  It’s quite the opposite.  Howard Roark was, for me, an “anti-hero.”  For Ayn Rand he was the hero, and of course, based upon Frank Lloyd Wright.  And she totally misunderstood him.  One of Wright’s uniquely innovations was the “modern suburb.”  And his modest low cost “Usonian” houses for a major contribution to the early days of mass residential building.  Rand would not have approved.  But as his fame spread and his commissions got larger, so did his powerful self-serving ego. 

When I was Dean of the Architecture Faculty at Columbia – about 1975 – an invited speaker did not show up, so I got a copy of The Fountainhead and showed the film to the students.  They kept hooting and applauding and wanted to play again and again, when Roark blew up the high rise and stiff-armed the executives. They were thrilled by the episode because he was taking on the establishment. There is, in every architect, at least one rebellious gene. 

DH: Young people still flock to Rand’s books.

JSP: It is disturbing, but this is probably because you can read the book in two different ways.  The way it is being chosen is embracing the heroic aspects of it and not the anti-hero.  And it is that heroic celebration that is the rationalization for an increasing number of younger architects perusing or admiring distinctive, stylistic identities.   

Signatures have always been collectables. It’s the celebration of materialism we live amongst, and it is difficult to resist. But not architects' signatures – hypocrisy has always been the “dirty little secret” of the architectural profession; the private patron as opposed to public financing, is far more common in this country as a result of the tax code. We are, to a large extent, still dependent of a free-enterprise system. I consciously dealt with this conflict by seeking out and intentionally being of service to not-for-profit public instructions.

The Inspirations

I asked Polshek what his favorite buildings were of those he designed. Not surprisingly it was a question he wasn’t really keen on answering. It seemed, reading between the lines, that the Rose Center, which replaced the Hayden Planetarium turned out to be a great public success, and he was especially proud of it, as he was of the Clinton Library. But he also was very specific about Quinco, his first “bridge building” completed in the 1970’s, which housed a community mental health center in Columbus, Indiana. 

JSP:No parent is comfortable picking a favorite child.  But Quinco, this “bridge to mental health” was one of them because it solved so many technical, environmental and emotional challenges – and in one small building.  And they were unprecedented solutions to problems that included a flooding creek and an adjacent nursing home. 

[Editor’s note: Columbus, Ind., with the support of the visionary Cummins Engine Foundation — which was headquartered there — hires emerging talents to design public buildings in this modest town of 44,000.]

But, for me, Quinco went back to my roots — my early interest in psychiatry, and what I see as an obligation to reduce personal and social anxiety.  This project was a perfect test for the proposition that architects can also be healers.   

DH: So what does the book title, “Build, Memory,” mean?

JSP: Well, it is homage to Vladimir Nabokov, whose book Speak, Memory is a very personal memoir. Nabokov’s writings have about them a certain, I would say, benign subversive aspect. After all, he did write “Lolita.” Throughout “Speak, Memory,” the relationship of the family to the people that worked for them, the servants, was incredibly enlightened for its time — that was very appealing to me and I’ve always required a socially relevant rationalization for each project. 

DH: Where did you get your inspiration to be an architect?

JP: For me growing up in the depression — I was born in 1930 — in a very progressive household for Akron, Ohio,  was when the seed was planted that architecture could be a socially useful pursuit. I got inspiration from a new house in my neighborhood. The architect was a former apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, and the house was a maverick amid a virtual zoo of bourgeois European styles. It shocked our neighbors. This was an epiphany: that architecture, in addition to providing shelter, could act as social critique.

So later, at Western Reserve in Cleveland, I was planning a career in medicine, but an undergraduate art history course called simply “Modern Building” was the spark for change. I seemed to have instinctively understood the design rationale of the projects we studied — that, and organic chemistry ended my medical career. 

DH: You ended up at the Yale School of Architecture.

JSP: By luck, at Yale, I had a professor, Eugene Nalle, who believed that the outside world had to be shut out to learn a new discipline. We had to concentrate on fundamentals. If you were taking piano lessons as a child, everybody hated to do scales. Well, he imposed the counterpart of scales in teaching architecture. Not just how to draw, but how materials were connected; how structures were supported traditionally by cultures in which there was no metal, no glass and so forth.  The purity of this approach was an elixir. Some of my classmates rebelled. They wanted freedom. I wanted discipline.     

DH: Stretching over 60 years now, you have been witness to, and no doubt dramatically affected by, major political and social change. How did that affect your work?

JSP: Cyclical depressions have been the bane of just about every architect’s existence. We feel the economy sinking first, and we recover last. It’s always been that way. Wars and depressions had a way of radicalizing architects since architects had much less to lose than lawyers or doctors or businessmen. Look at Columbia University, and the Sorbonne, in the late ‘60s where riots were often instigated and sustained by young architects on faculties there. 

There was, of course, the depression, the time that I grew up. Then the Second World War was over and the good times rolled — but not for long. Eventually you had the oil embargo and market crash in 1973 — waiting two or three hours to get a tank of gas. I went to Columbia to become Dean in ’72. That was a dark time. The early ‘80s were bad, and then came the onrush of hyper-materialism. The early ‘90s had another recession, and on and on.

Still, all this upheaval encouraged architects to invent different ways of approaching problems, just as rising waters and changing climate are motivators today. You could say that carbon dioxide, not to mention carbon monoxide, is actually changing attitudes in the profession. The other important thing that is changing is the very large number of women that are now practicing [architecture], including women owning their own firms.

DH: And what about working with the Clintons — a presidential library is a major undertaking. What was that like?

JSP: Well, it starts out with how we got the commission at that first interview; and our creating an analytical document we often made, that explains our approach and acts as a template for discussions with the perspective client.  This would address site, climate, construction systems, inspiration, public and private spaces, etc. We created one for the president with a multitude of things – we included pictures of local buildings; family photos; his cat and dog; favorite books of theirs, etc. And it was the night of the Columbine massacre — literally, that hour. Clearly he was agitated but he was going to focus on our presentation. And as he looked intensely at the two-page spread on Inspiration, he looked up with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Hey, there’s more pictures of Hillary than me!”

But, seriously, the president was incredibly focused, and provided the key leadership. And at that point Hillary had just decided to run for the Senate, so getting their schedules together was almost impossible. We saw a lot more of him. Still, she had a lot to say, and she was very approachable and coolly disciplined. 

But the president was emotionally engaged. For example, he didn’t understand why we shifted the building onto two different grids. He asked, “Why aren’t they parallel to the railroad? Why is one like this and one like that?” And all we had to do was explain the rational and show through graphic documents, that Little Rock had one grid, but the Union Pacific Railroad had a different grid, one which was related to the Jeffersonian grid that overlays a huge part of the Midwest. And he responded, “Wow — I get it. Do it.”

And as with most other challenges, we moved forward. 

DH: Thanks, Jim. Any parting words?

JSP: Well I’ve learned many important things over the years. One in particular sticks with me.  It was in my very first job working for I.M. Pei: I discovered – in form and in substance – how to hold out for excellence.

Book Slideshow

April 29, 2014

Building slideshow and credits.

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Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

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