Robert A.M. Stern Reflects On James Polshek’s Impact On Architecture

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Carnegie Hall seating and stage in warm light

Architect James Polshek led the restoration of the Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall in New York City, which features five curvilinear levels. (PHOTO BY JEFF GOLDBERG AND ESTO)

Robert A.M. Stern explores the late James Polshek’s reputation as a preservation architect, as well as the indelible mark he made on Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture and beyond. 

When Jim Polshek became dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in 1972, I was already teaching on the faculty. Jim had accomplished a lot as an architect and had a good sense of what the school needed after the student protests of the late ’60s.

When you’re the dean of a school, and good at the job, you should not only be a curator of talent, but also of diverse points of view. Right away, Jim did just that. He had a sense, perhaps coming from his days as a student at Yale, that an architecture school was an important part of a university. He had studied under George Howe, Eugene Nalle, Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson. When Jim arrived at Columbia, with the exception of Romaldo Giurgola, the school did not have architects of the same high caliber. But he brought in different talents, like Kenneth Frampton and Mary McLeod, and put the school back on the map.

Later, Jim acquired a reputation as a preservation architect. He always said he didn’t believe in preservation architecture because he felt any good architect should be able to build sympathetically onto an older building. He had some interesting ideas, and with the support James Marston Fitch, who started the preservation program at Columbia, Jim formally added “Preservation” to the school’s name. Before that, it had just been the Graduate School of Architecture and Planning—this helped Columbia become something important, especially in New York City.

Jim’s impact on the profession can be traced to one of his earliest projects: the Teijin Institute for Biomedical Research in Japan—his first big commission. In those days, the connections between Japan and the United States were very slender. The war was still fresh in everyone’s memory. But Jim went with it and designed this extraordinary series of buildings, meticulously crafted in reinforced concrete. It was quite sophisticated architecture. To this day, it is one of his best buildings.

It can be difficult when you start out so strong, but not for Jim. He made his mark with many memorable projects like the planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and a tower above 500 Park Avenue, which again, was a good example of a new building marrying itself to an older one. I studied many of  his projects carefully, and while I may have taken a different direction, I always learned from them and from him.

—As told to Michelle Brunner