James Stewart Polshek’s distinguished career is in its sixth decade. As an architect, educator, and public advocate, he has created buildings whose designs exemplify elegance in problem-solving and spring from critical precepts of humanism. Having defined academic and practice models built on the values of collaboration and diversity, he has inspired generations of architecture students and professionals.
Polshek was Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation for fifteen years. Appointed by University President William McGill in 1972–a tumultuous period marked by the threat of nuclear weapons and the continuing Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the aftermath of the 1960s upheavals on college campuses, and the oil crisis–Polshek led the architecture school’s resurrection. He assembled an ideologically diverse faculty, with whom he developed a socially relevant curriculum, created degree-granting programs in planning and preservation, and established the interdisciplinary Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. Polshek served as Special Adviser for Design and Planning to the University President, and in that capacity, he assured stewardship of the historic campus and had a critical role in reviewing designs for contemporary interventions.
In 1964, Polshek completed his first two major commissions for Teijin Institute in Tokyo, Japan. Upon his return to the United States, Polshek founded his own firm. Over the next several decades this firm evolved into Polshek Partnership winning the American Institute of Architects’ Firm Award in 1992. In concert with his office, Polshek completed numerous projects of international significance, including: Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Santa Fe Opera, Santa Fe, New Mexico; the restoration and expansion of Carnegie Hall, New York; the renovation and expansion of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center, Little Rock, Arkansas; and the National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Emblematic of his belief in the power of design to shape the public realm and by extension to improve public life are activities complementary to professional practice. In 2006, Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Polshek to the New York City Public Design Commission, the body charged with ensuring excellence and innovation in designs for city-owned properties. In 2005, Polshek became the interpretive consultant for the realization of Louis I. Kahn’s 1973 design for Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island. In 1981, he co-founded Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility; in 1993, the non-profit received a national award from the American Institute of Architects for “its strong resounding voice for social and political justice.”
In 2018, Polshek received the American Institute of Architects’ highest honor, the Gold Medal, and a year later, he received the Fulbright Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Polshek published two books on his work, Context and Responsibility (Rizzoli, 1988) and Build, Memory (Monacelli Press, 2014).
Polshek has received many honors, including the Municipal Art Society’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal, the Brooklyn Museum's Augustus Graham Medal for excellence in architecture, election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the William Bernoudy Residency in Architecture at the American Academy in Rome. He has been awarded honorary degrees from Pratt Institute, Parsons, the New School for Design, and New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Polshek is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and holds an MArch from Yale University and a BS from Case Western Reserve University.
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