JAN HIRD POKORNY ASSOCIATES
Architect, preservationist, and teacher Jan Pokorny, who died on May 20, straddled not only fields, but worlds. With a sensibility shaped by history—he came from Brno, Czechoslovakia, the birthplace of Sigmund Freud and site of Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House—Pokorny impressed all with his generous cosmopolitanism in a long career spanning Prague, Detroit, and New York. AN asked two who knew him as colleague and mentor to share their impressions.
Jan Hird Pokorny began his architectural practice in Prague in 1937 upon graduation from Prague Polytechnic University, emigrating to the United States via Sweden after the fall of Czechoslovakia to the Germans in 1939. He then completed his master’s degree in architecture in 1941 at Columbia University, where he would later teach.
During World War II, Jan worked in Detroit as an architect for the Leo Bauer firm, converting Ford automobile factories for production of battle tanks. After the war, he spent two years with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and then established his own architectural practice in New York City in 1947, quickly branching into industrial and academic architecture and establishing himself as a nuanced architect for public and institutional structures. His first major preservation project was the restoration of Schermerhorn Row at the South Street Seaport, completed in 1983.
I joined Jan’s firm in 1986. When he asked me if I would work for him, I said yes, but that I could not start immediately. I told him I had planned a four-week trip to India, and he scrunched up his face—at this time I thought he was about to rescind his offer—then he said, “No, no, four weeks will not do”—long pause—”you must spend at least six weeks in India!”
When I began working on the Morris-Jumel mansion restoration, which had a tight schedule, I would stay late working on details, construction drawings, and specifications. In most offices, partners would typically make the rounds admonishing staff to “hurry up and get that out!” Jan came up behind me on a particular evening, and I could feel him looking over my shoulder. I braced myself for the “get it out” admonition. Instead, he very gently said, “Take as long as you wish to finish this, just make sure that it’s the best we can do.”
Until three years ago, our office was in Jan’s home and it was very similar to an atelier atmosphere, very unstructured and familial. It was the norm that at everyone’s birthday we would sit at his huge George Nakashima dining room table and have Slivovitz and cake. Often, if one arrived early, Jan would already be at his desk, but in his pajamas!
Richard M. Olcott
Jan and I spent about 11 years together on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, starting together in September 1996. At 81, he was twice my age when he started and by far the oldest of the commissioners. Nonetheless, he was possibly the most progressive of us all, consistently advocating an enlightened position drawn from a lifetime of experience. That enlightenment came in large part from Jan’s Czech background, having grown up in the famously beautiful medieval and Baroque city of Prague in a country that also has a long and strong modernist history. Jan could move among many such overlapping languages with ease, and with a profound, unfettered understanding of history, coupled with an enthusiasm for the contemporary. You could scarcely find any individual who cared more deeply about architecture, art, music, and literature, and whose manner, bearing, and dress—elegant gray suits, always with a bowtie—bespoke a truly cultured person.
Countless applicants have been the unwitting beneficiaries of that civility, and Jan was always polite and deferential even when delivering the bad news about their designs. He had a low tolerance for stylistic excess and structural inefficiency, and would unfailingly point out such glaring deficiencies and their proper resolution at the first opportunity, the teacher in him coming to the fore. This quality earned Jan the nickname “the Professor” among the commissioners; some would hold back (“Let’s see what the Professor thinks”) until Jan had pronounced the application either promising or beyond redemption. He always provided succinct, elegantly simple summations of complicated problems, on the heels of another commissioner’s long-winded bloviation. We were all guilty of that, but never him.
But the heart of the matter is this: It’s easy to dislike the Landmarks Commission, even though everyone needs it. It’s a world of sniping, know-it-all critics, pontificating architects, scheming developers, and occasionally unhinged preservationists, all with their own agendas. It’s not easy to do as Jan did: to serenely reside above the fray and get to the issues and the truth, and then find the way forward. I will miss that, and New Yorkers will too, whether they know it or not.