Paul Spencer Byard leaves a remarkable legacy as both designer and defender of public-spirited architecture. As a young lawyer for the New York State Urban Development Corporation, from 1969 to 1974, he helped develop 30,000 units of low- and moderate-income housing. Later, as an architect, he artfully shaped some of the city’s newest landmarks and revived its old ones—first at James Stewart Polshek & Partners, and then as partner at Platt Byard Dovell White. And as director of Columbia University’s graduate preservation program, he showed a new generation how to learn from the past. Three colleagues spoke to AN about this eloquent and spirited advocate for architecture, who died at his Brooklyn home, at age 68, on July 15.
Charles A. Platt, partner
Platt Byard Dovell White Architects
My first partnership, Smotrich & Platt, designed the offices of Edward Logue and the Urban Development Corporation. There was on the staff a bright, cheerful young lawyer, with a handkerchief flopping out of his breast pocket, who took me aside and asked if I would design a special window in his office wall. Which I did, sneaking it by the very watchful Ed Logue and his entire architectural staff, and we got it built. So not only was I Paul’s partner, but I was also his architect.
Paul had left the firm Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts to work for the UDC, which was an amazingly hopeful organization. I can’t tell you how hopeful we were for the architectural and social expectations of the UDC. And that was one of the ideals in Paul’s later life: that the profession would return to those optimistic days and purposes. He was very ambitious for architecture.
I was on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission beginning in 1979. Jim Polshek practiced before the commission, and was often importantly represented by Paul. I remember one project in the Village, which was a little postmodern and forward-thinking for its time. Paul was the partner responsible for the project, which was not approved instantaneously. He came to me for advice—something architects before the commission apparently aren’t allowed to do any more—and that was when we began to talk architecture to each other again.
Preservation with a capital P didn’t exist in those early days. I think Paul felt very strongly, even as a lawyer at UDC, that the preservation of buildings of value was terribly important. Like many of us who had lived through the age of urban renewal, Paul learned from the mistakes of the past. He felt preservation played an exemplary role in our lives, that it profoundly affected our understanding of our society.
Gregg Pasquarelli, principal
Paul Byard was my first studio professor at Columbia’s GSAPP, in the fall of 1990. I had decided to pursue a joint degree in preservation and architecture, and Paul assigned three projects in the South Street Seaport. As anyone who has gone to architecture school knows, the first semester of studio is both exhilarating and terrifying, and as a student who had recently left a job on Wall Street to venture into the world of design, it was more the latter for me. Paul patiently guided me through everything from installing a Mayline to complex ideas about context, zoning, and aesthetics.
A week or two before our final review, I was very much doubting myself. Paul said to me, “Gregg, if I could change my life and leave law at 37, you can change your life and leave banking at 26. And in fact, I think you should consider leaving preservation to focus on architecture,” he added. “Your job will be to try to make buildings that people will want to preserve someday in the future.” Those words, and his encouragement, have never left me.
Rosalie Genevro, executive director
Architectural League of New York
Paul Byard loved the art of architecture, the creativity and complexity inherent in the act of making. “The reason we have our art is like the reason we have hands, to take hold of pieces of our world and make them meet our needs,” he wrote in an introduction to the Architectural League’s catalogue for its exhibition on the Renzo Piano Building Workshop.
For many, Paul’s public persona was so tied to his exquisite facility with language that his affinity for the making of architecture could be surprising. But it was an essential part of his view of the world; it manifested itself not only in his professional work but playfully in projects like his shading devices made of sails, and a table made of extruded aluminum, built for his house in Maine.
Paul’s insistence on understanding the art of architecture in all its fullness and significance—as the most characteristic and meaningful activity of homo faber—will reverberate in the League’s programs and with all those he came in contact with for a long time to come.