James Polshek, FAIA, likes to tell the story of how he first caught the architecture bug. He was still a teenager in Akron, Ohio, when a new house went up in his parents’ leafy upper-middle-class neighborhood. Designed by a Denver architect named Victor Hornbein, whose work shows the clear influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Usonian-style structure had a flat roof and a windowless street façade, a scandalous departure from the neighborhood’s more traditional homes. “It shocked the neighbors,” Polshek recalls. “But to me, it was an epiphany. It showed that architecture could act as a social critique. The house was a radical statement that the status quo was not satisfactory.”
Polshek, winner of the 2018 AIA Gold Medal, credits the house—and an undergraduate course at Case Western Reserve University called “Modern Building”—with the demise of his plans to go to medical school. But not unlike the doctor he thought he would become, Polshek has always considered architecture a “healing art.” “[It] aspires to restore, renew, make whole, reconcile, and harmonize,” he wrote in the introduction to his 2014 book Build, Memory (Monacelli Press).
Not surprisingly, some of Polshek’s most celebrated projects involve historic buildings—either sensitive renovations or modern additions: the Rose Center for Earth and Space, a modern orb-in-a-glass-cube addition to New York’s American Museum of Natural History; a renovation and expansion of Carnegie Hall; a radical transformation of the Brooklyn Museum’s grand staircase to form a new entry pavilion. “Jim was one of the first architects to show that it was possible to bring a modern aesthetic to an existing building,” says David Burney, FAIA, associate professor of planning and placemaking at the Pratt Institute. “That was a real paradigm shift. [By comparison] most of the historicist approaches look pretty bad.”
Indeed, in 1972, when Polshek was named dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture (a post he held for 15 years), he added the words “planning” and “preservation” to the school’s title. Still, according to Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, Vanity Fair’s architecture critic, “He never wanted an office that was totally dedicated to preservation projects. He’s too interested in also leaving a mark as an architect of new things. But he loves old architecture, he believes in it, and he believes he has a responsibility to preserve it and make it better.”
Polshek, 88, studied architecture at Yale and earned his master’s degree in 1955. He briefly worked for I.M. Pei, FAIA, before setting up his own New York–based firm, James Stewart Polshek Architect, in 1963. It later became Polshek Partnership and now goes by the name Ennead Architects, with the retired Polshek serving as “design counsel.”
“I think the word that best describes Polshek’s work is ‘balance,’ ” says Goldberger. “It’s always balanced between all of the various things that go into a building. No one thing is allowed to push all the others off the table. There’s always aesthetics, but aesthetics is never so important as to push function off the table. He’s always concerned about practicality, but never so much that he will let the building lose sight of some aesthetic idea. He’s concerned about a building’s relationship to its surroundings, but again not so much that he will give up the other elements.”
Polshek’s body of work, which includes the cantilevered glass-and-steel William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, Ark., and the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn, N.Y., certainly reflects that balance. “I’ve always gone out of my way to avoid stylistic games and applications of new technologies just for their own sake,” Polshek says. Or, as he wrote in his 1988 monograph Context and Responsibility (Rizzoli): “The true importance of architecture lies in its ability to solve human problems, not stylistic ones. A building is too permanent and too influential on public life and personal comfort to be created primarily as ‘public art.’ ”
Other 2018 AIA Honor Awards: