AIA Gold Medal–winning architect James Polshek dies at 92


AIA Gold Medal–winning architect James Polshek dies at 92

James Stewart Polshek (© Michelle Leong/Ennead Architects)

James Polshek, former dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) and celebrated architect who founded the New York City–headquartered global firm contemporarily known as Ennead Architects, has passed away at the age of 92. The New York Times first reported on Polshek’s death over the weekend, noting he passed away at his Manhattan home from kidney disease on September 9 as confirmed by his son, Peter Max Polshek.

Tributes to Polshek, a remarkably prolific yet unpresuming figure, have since been steadily rolling in across social media. Jeanne Gang, founder and principal of Studio Gang, noted in a tweet that she “loved his child-like excitement about architecture,” adding: “We will miss this great-hearted man in our community. His kindness was his signature.” Others, including former Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, shared Polshek’s most enduring quote, which first appeared in Context & Responsibility, a mid-career retrospective published in 1988: “The true importance of architecture lies in its ability to solve human problems, not stylistic ones,” Polshek wrote. “A building is too permanent and too influential on public life and personal comfort to be created primarily as ‘public art.’”

“As a designer, educator, and civic advocate, James Polshek advanced a singular vision, based on his core belief in the sustaining power of an architecture that synthesizes ethics and aesthetics,” eulogized Ennead in a tribute to its late founder published on the firm’s website. “For Polshek, pragmatism and idealism were co-equals. From his earliest residential projects, solving human problems and reinforcing the optimistic aspects of the art and craft of building permeated his work. These foundational values drew generations of talented and like-minded architects to the office, defining a studio culture of collaboration and a practice model informed by social responsibility and environmental stewardship, which continues forward with new generations at Ennead.”

Ennead, which can trace its roots back to the foundation of James Stewart Polshek Architect in 1963, was previously known as Polshek Partnership (1998–2010); in the decades prior, the firm took on several other names indicating Polshek’s leadership including Polshek and Partners (1994–1998), and James Stewart Polshek and Partners (1980–1994). The firm, renamed Ennead in 2010, is currently led by nine partners. Following his retirement from the partnership in 2005, Polshek maintained the title of design counsel to the firm.

James Stewart Polshek was born February 11, 1930, in Akron, Ohio. Following a short-lived stint in medical school at Case Western Reserve University, he moved east to pursue a degree in architecture at Yale University, where he studied under Louis Kahn. Shortly after graduating from Yale with a Master in Architecture in 1955, he traveled to Europe as a Fulbright Fellow at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Back in the U.S., Polshek then worked in the offices of I.M. Pei and Ulrich Franzen before setting off again on a two-year sojourn to Japan. A young Polshek established his eponymous New York architecture practice upon returning to the states.

exterior photo of the rose center at the amnh at night
Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History. (© Jeff Goldberg/Esto/Courtesy Ennead Architects)

Polshek’s namesake firm evolved and expanded over the decades, with major projects including a sprawling restoration of New York’s Carnegie Hall (1987), the Santa Fe Opera (1998), the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan (2000), the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock (2004), the entry plaza and pavilion at the Brooklyn Museum (also 2004), the now-former home of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. (2007), Philadelphia’s Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History (2010), and the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, a 2010 project which brought public amenities to a most unlikely locale: a sewage treatment facility sandwiched between Brooklyn and Queens. While the firm’s work spans myriad typologies—education, residential, infrastructure, and on—perhaps its most significant completed works have been, as evidenced above, civic and cultural commissions, including numerous museum and performing arts centers spanning coast-to-coast and further afield, including in China where Ennead maintains an active presence through its Shanghai studio. The firm has also worked extensively in the healthcare sector.

In addition to those mentioned above, other notable—and notably diverse—New York City projects led by Polshek Partnership include the Flushing branch location of Queens Public Library (1998),  Lycée Français de New York (2003), the New York Hall of Science expansion (2004), the FDNY’s Rescue Company 3 in the Bronx (2008), and the High Line–straddling Standard Hotel (2009).

Polshek served as dean of GSAPP from 1973 through 1987, a period of exceptional growth at the school that included broadening its offerings to include degrees in preservation and planning. A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA), Polshek received the AIA’s highest honor, the Gold Medal, in 2018. Other awards and accolades include the Municipal Art Society’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal (2002), the Fulbright Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award (2019), and election to both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2002) and American Academy of Arts and Letters (2005). His honorary degrees include those from Pratt Institute (1995), the New Jersey Institute of Technology (2002), and Columbia (2022) among others.

Polshek also served on the NYC Public Design Commission, appointed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2006. Also of note was his role of interpretive consultant for Louis Kahn’s 1973 design for Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, which was ultimately completed in 2012 on Roosevelt Island in New York. (Polshek served as board member of the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy.) In addition to 1988’s Context & Responsibility, another book authored by Polshek, Build, Memory, followed in 1994.

More on Polshek’s remarkable life and career can be found on Ennead’s website. Following this initial announcement, AN will also publish a comprehensive tribute to the late architect in the coming days.