Recession Tales: James Polshek

Recession Tales: James Polshek

In the third of AN‘s conversations with architects about past recessions, Julie V. Iovine talks to James Polshek, senior design counsel and a founder in 1963 of Polshek Partnership Architects, who will be presented with the Augustus Graham Medal by the Brooklyn Museum on April 23.


The Architect’s Newspaper: Which downturn has been hardest on you so far?

James Polshek: 1972—that was the big traumatic one. My memory of the later ones is not as vivid as when there was no gasoline or oil in the ’70s.

Before that, things were going great. I went to Japan in 1962 when I was 32 for almost two years. It was a busy time of unlimited possibilities, and I was doing these big $100 million laboratory projects.

When I came back in ’63, I was back to doing little remodeling jobs and consulting for the New York State Mental Hygiene fund that was very progressive then, hiring young architects to consult on bigger projects.

I was sharing an office at 295 Madison with Richard Kaplan, Michael Zimmer, and Walfredo Toscanini, grandson of the conductor. We each had a corner office in the tower at the top. We had an agreement that whoever got the busiest first would take over the whole space. And I got it. We grew to about 45 people.

Then in 1969, I was working on a student center at Wesleyan University when there was a sudden, gigantic drop in the market and they cancelled it. That was the beginning of rumblings from the Middle East. Then in 1972, we had a fire. I had these two apartments on 9th Street side by side: one my family lived in and the other was a kind of branch office because we had grown so large. For me, the fire was really symbolic, like Thor had thrown his lightning bolt.

Did it really feel that desperate?

Well, we were down to about five people, from 45. I recall talking to my wife at the time, saying I thought it was time to call [Ulrich] Franzen (I had worked for him years before) and tell him that maybe it was time for me to go back to work. She said, don’t be silly, something will happen, but I was really considering closing the office. I didn’t engage in a job hunt, but I did look at ads. There wasn’t much around, anyway. I just didn’t want to fail.

At the same time, though, we were doing some interesting planning studies for Westinghouse. And we did the Brotherhood Synagogue on Gramercy Park. That turned out to be important as it proved my commitment to preservation.

Did you go into preservation as part of a survival strategy?

You can say strategy, but preservation, like planning and feasibility studies, was also a philosophical predilection. It had to do with my own eclectic set of interests and my getting easily bored. I really believe in preservation, particularly when it’s in conjunction with the addition of something new.

When I was at school at Yale, historic buildings were not even looked at, but I thought preservation was a moral obligation. I didn’t share the agenda of that generation of architects who came out of school after World War II, Harvard in particular, who were kind of mini master-builders. I think that in architecture, at its most ideal, the architect is somewhat anonymous. That encouraged me to find ways to create new architecture that was not always visible, not de novo: underground, historic preservation, interiors, healthcare, and laboratories.

When did you start teaching? Was it to support your practice?

I became dean of Columbia in 1972, but I didn’t seek it out. Max Bond recommended me and I had every reason to agree because things were really bad. And it stayed depressing all the way until about 1976.

Some architects weather downturns by looking abroad for work.

That’s another strategy, but not one we entertained. In the ’70s, many big firms were running to the Middle East for work. They were making presentations to the Shah of Iran. I was too young to get offers of that kind, but I was absolutely disinclined anyway. And I think there was an unspoken consensus in my office because everyone had little children. They didn’t want to go off to Saudi Arabia or China. And we still don’t.

Was there something else you did go after?

Feasibility studies—they don’t often result in buildings, but they can. They’re sometimes intellectually provocative and they force you to collaborate with engineers. We worked on a plutonium processing plant until everyone realized how dangerous it was. And on a prototype to develop a new type of industrial plant—it was the most eclectic bunch of stuff you can imagine, but it all helped in our recovery. Studies go on, whether there’s a recession or not.

I was one of Philip Johnson’s adoptees and went to those soirees where architects criticize one another. It was a parallel universe, when Eisenman and those guys were dividing up the world into whites and grays. I said, I’m not white or gray. I’m pink, and I’m not going to be part of this, and I wasn’t. It is, however, important to establish a reputation within the profession for quality of work and integrity. But it’s even more important to survive.