Walking down Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York, James Polshek passes what he calls “one of my greatest disappointments” (an entrance to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden that was built without a planned 50-foot tower) on the way to what he considers one of his greatest successes: the curved, glass-walled entrance to the Brooklyn Museum, which the firm, then known as Polshek Partnership Architects, completed in 2004. Polshek is so pleased that he stops to take an iPhone photo of the point at which the original McKim, Mead & White building and his cascading, translucent addition meet.

James Polshek
Photo © Fred A. Bernstein
James Polshek in the entrance his firm designed for the Brooklyn Museum.

Polshek’s new book, Build, Memory (The Monacelli Press) is a similar journey, with stops at 16 of the 300-plus projects completed by James Stewart Polshek Architect, which he founded in 1963 and which later became Polshek Partnership Architects. They include the award-winning Rose Center for Earth and Space in Manhattan; the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock; the Newseum in Washington, D.C.; the renovated Carnegie Hall in Manhattan; and the Santa Fe Opera complex in New Mexico. In 2005, Polshek withdrew from participation in the firm; in 2010 his former partners rechristened it Ennead Architects. But if his name isn’t on the door, Polshek, now 84, still serves as “design counsel” to the firm and says he has “a happy home” there.

Polshek has a long history as an academic (he was dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation from 1972 to 1987), but his book avoids theory, or even much architectural lingo. Instead, it presents what he calls “stories” of each building–starting, generally, with the first phone call the architect received and ending with the dedication ceremony. Polshek, who calls it “not a personal memoir but a memoir of projects,” spoke over lunch at the Brooklyn Museum.

Do you recommend the profession to young people starting out?

Yes, with more caveats than you have room for.

Do you have a favorite project in the book?

Actually I do have one, because it solved so many problems so far ahead of its time. It’s the Quinco Regional Mental Health Center in Columbus, Indiana (1969-73). I was always interested in psychiatry; I might have become a psychiatrist if not for two encounters I had as a young man.

What were they?

The first, when I was growing up in Akron, Ohio, was the construction of a new house in our neighborhood designed by Victor Hornbein, a former apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. The flat roof and windowless street facade shocked our neighbors. For me, it was an epiphany, a suggestion that architecture, in addition to providing shelter, could act as social critique.

The second was at Case Western Reserve University, where I was struggling with the pre-med curriculum. Not so an undergraduate course called simply “Modern Building.” I instinctively understood the design rationale of the projects we studied (Berthold Lubetkin’s penguin pool at the London Zoo was one). That was the end of my medical career.

You studied architecture at Yale while Louis Kahn was there. What did he teach you?

One day, he looked down at a drawing I was doing, and he said, “Mr. Polshek, trees don’t grow in rows.” I said, “They do if you plant them in rows.” He didn’t speak to me for six weeks.

But you came to admire him?

We became friendly. What I learned from him was modesty. Personal modesty—he never cared about publicity. And the modesty in the expression of the building.

Then you went to work for I.M. Pei. What did you learn from him?

To hold out for quality. Meaning you set standards for yourself and for your clients.

And clients go along because...

You allow them to feel that they are participants in creating the buildings, in ways that go beyond just paying the bills.

What do you see when you look at your buildings?

Architects always see flaws.

And when you look at your whole body of work?

Some people think it’s too eclectic. But the buildings reflect a preference for taking old things and renewing them, with restorations and additions. It’s never been about self-aggrandizement.  

Are you sorry you reduced your workload?

In some ways I suppose I am. But I didn’t want to be like Niemeyer, doodling, and then giving the doodles to other people to turn into buildings.

So you’re focused on how the buildings are made?

Yes, even though I was conspicuously deficient in my knowledge of the technology required to really put them together.

Engineering is not your strong suit?

It’s a non-suit. I’ve always been interested in the ideas behind the buildings. What they mean to the public.

You worked for some illustrious clients, including Bill Clinton, about whose library you write: “His policy initiatives inspired the confidence, generosity and boldness of the building.”

Architecture and politics will always be connected. I like to think that there’s a certain coherence between one’s idealistic beliefs about the world and the clients one works for.

So would you have done George W. Bush’s library, if you’d been asked?

I just couldn’t. I would have been embarrassed to have my name associated with the policies of that administration.

You were dean at Columbia for 15 years. But you don’t speak like an academic.

I’m closer to the ground than that. I like to use plain language.