In Praise of Polshek Partnership Architects, the “Style-less” Firm

A daring new building by one of our quietly great firms shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

When the thing started going up, I was indifferent. Another overscale incursion in the Meatpacking District, another bit of commercial excess begot by the promise of the repurposed High Line. There was a certain infrastructural grandeur implied by the scale of the scaffolding—early on in the construction it was clear it was rising to bridge the old elevated tracks—but, given the quality of new construction in Manhattan, even in this vaunted age of carpetbagging stars, I wasn’t holding my breath.

Then the forms came off the concrete. For lovers of solidity and (for lack of a less compromised term) honesty in architecture, there’s nothing like monumental poured-in-place concrete to get the blood flowing. It’s one-to-one construction. With concrete, there’s less room for cosmetic fakery or the kind of structural fibbing that takes the joy out of considering a building’s play with gravity: it is what it is. And this concrete—rough-cast piers, five or six stories high, tapering and turning from broad bases—was aiming at a favorite aesthetic sweet spot: deliberate, refined, but in a shape that in another day, say five decades ago, a critic would have had no compunction calling “muscular.” The piers, daringly slender on the Hudson River side of the tracks, massive and faceted beyond, were like Marcel Breuer or Le Corbusier in their respective late, great periods, but they were quotations of neither. It was a new New Brutalism.

That was last summer, and I wasn’t the only geek getting curious. All my architecture-writer friends started buzzing: What is that thing? And who did it? Someone with their ear closer to the cultural ground than mine finally spread the news: it was the New York branch of André Balazs’s Standard Hotel chain, designed by Polshek Partnership Architects.

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Polshek? Polshek! It was a shock, and it made perfect sense. For years, I’d had a soft spot in my hardened heart for this firm. Its best efforts were anonymous in that perversely appealing way—for every star turn, a city needs dozens of great background ­buildings—but its buildings were rarely boring. Older projects, like the renovation of the Columbia University law school, where a fine Max Abramovitz block was given a shapely little counterpoint outcropping, or the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine at the NYU Medical Center—sleek and rigorous, one of the best Modern buildings since Modernism went out of fashion—seemed like the very measure of competence and, in the comfort they seemed to have in their recessive nature, confidence.

The firm, even before the more recent hemi-demi-semi-retirement of James Polshek, operated without a fixed stylistic mode. Though this may have handicapped it in the press and with clients in search of glam—as we’ve discussed here many times before, sex sells—I always looked at the firm’s multiplicity as a feature rather than a bug. It was a reflection of the preferences of its several autonomous partners but also, to their credit, the demands of each project (read: client). For the Mash­antucket Pequot Museum or the Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History, the firm designed facilities with the flash required to inspire board members and move the public, as such jobs require. But that flash didn’t carry over to other institutional work, as a stylistic tic where it would have made no sense. The firm, in short, had a sense of propriety.

No two Polshek buildings from this 1990s period were alike. Still, it was easy to pick them out on the streets by their attitude. Many, like the Columbia and NYU-hospital projects, rose just to the look-at-me line without crossing it. But the real clue was in their details. Polshek buildings have always appeared to take pleasure in their assembly; they seem to be the products of architects who take pleasure in solving the problems of assembly at the smallest scales. To me the Rose Center has always been one of the office’s major hiccups. The primary gesture—the only gesture—is a big ball, housing the planetarium, propped up on three legs in a big glass box, as if the Perisphere from the 1939 World’s Fair had been separated from the Trylon and put in a giant case for display. It is realized at a strangely grand scale, even for broad 81st Street, and it sits uneasily against the old wing of the museum. There are problems with circulation. It ran famously overbudget. But you can’t fault the details: the thing is as tight as a drum.

Another project, which I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing, is so arresting in images that it may even get me to visit Pennsylvania. In 2006 the firm completed an arts center on the campus of the Mercersburg Acad­emy. On a hillside site with older buildings in need of respect all around, the solution chosen was a pavilion in that midcentury mode given a bad name by the three main theaters at Lincoln Center: a glazed box between two slabs ringed by an elegant colonnade of gracile columns with just a hint of entasis. Where the site falls away, the difference in elevation is made up by a plinth of carefully laid stone. Propriety again.

When I was the one spreading the news about the Standard and its architect last summer, I had the pleasure to see others’ reactions. Polshek? Pol­shek?!? It didn’t make sense to some, at first mention, that this powerful but very tasteful construction could be the product of New York’s greatest sleeper firm. That attitude should change when people become more familiar with its latest post-Polshek-at-the-helm production, recently completed and coming soon.

The firm’s new WGBH headquarters in Boston, for instance, finished last year, is wicked awesome. Prior to hiring Polshek, the public broadcaster had bought a nasty little spec office building along the Mass Pike, the type of thing one sees on the outskirts of so many cities but that seems particularly insidious in Boston, where there is so much less city around to absorb them. The station had also purchased a lot across the street, so the brief was to occupy it and integrate the unfortunate white elephant. The solution, which in its audacity has shades of both the Clinton Library, in Little Rock, and the elegant engineering gymnastics of the Standard, was to arrange space in a flying two-level bar, landing on the new construction on one end and smashing into—and, crucially, obscuring—the old construction on the other. A side benefit, of the kind that only comes about when intuitive design thinking leads the way, was to give the complex a commanding presence on the highway, where it acts as a sign for the city.

Forthcoming projects also look very promising. The Gateway Center, at Westchester Community College, in Valhalla, New York, scheduled for completion next year, is planned as a collection of intimate stone and glass objects, hugging the slope of a hill but set off by its own skyline Trylon to mark it in the sky. The firm’s design for the Utah Museum of Natural History, to be completed by 2011, is on a grander scale. Clad in varieties of copper from a local mine, it could be a showstopper. (A show­stopper with a sense of decency.) It is exactly the type of commission where one would expect another firm to cart out and repurpose a preexisting stylistic solution, tweaking it just enough to maximize its effect in the inevitable press frenzy at the ribbon cutting. Here instead we find a brand-new look for the office—a kind of angled massing seen nowhere else in the Polshek Partnership oeuvre. Has a major firm actually devised a new fitting style to fit a new client? Will wonders never cease?

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