In Memoriam: James Polshek (1930-2022)
December 1, 2022
By Sean Sawyer
I met Jim Polshek in the summer of 1988. I had just graduated from Princeton with a B.A. in Art History, spent six weeks with a Eurail Pass, and had decided to test the waters of architecture to see if I should aim for a M.Arch. or a Ph.D. I took a position as a marketing coordinator at James Stewart Polshek and Partners at a salary of $18,000, found a share with Princeton friends in the borderlands of Park Slope and Sunset Park, and was embraced by New York City and the firm. Working in marketing was a sort of elfin existence; we were not legit “architects” but we had daily, close contact with Jim and his partners, as we put together proposals for new jobs and a wide variety of other pre- and post-construction tasks.
Jim was a natural mentor. This was the pre-PowerPoint era, and he would walk into the marketing office and say, “Sean, help me pull slides for my lecture at Yale.” I would stand behind him at the array of vertical light boxes as he dove into the slide drawers, and he would talk me through his thought process. I had come into the office as a fervent neo-Modernist, wanting the progressive message of the movement to stay alive and relevant and detesting anything “Po-Mo.” As he pulled slides, Jim showed me that there was another path. His was an architecture that embraced new materials and technologies but always saw the building as an element of the whole, whether it was the urban grid, a campus plan, or a landscape. Invariably, he included one particular slide in his lectures. This was a photograph of Freud’s desk in his London home with an array of totemic objects. As a raw youth, I struggled to comprehend its significance. Now, 35 years on, I see it as expressing his belief in the affective power of architecture. For Jim, designing a new building was introducing a new individual into the neighborhood. They should be distinct but get along. Modernism could coexist with its predecessors if it took stock of the fundamental qualities of scale, material, and composition.
God Speed, Mr. Polshek.
Sean Sawyer serves as the Washburn and Susan Oberwager President of The Olana Partnership, which preserves and interprets Frederic Church’s Hudson River estate, OLANA.