The University Record, October 18, 1999

Polshek details challenging conditions facing College

By Jane R. Elgass

“I think it is appropriate we be in a tent because it asserts that there is more to architecture than bricks and mortar,” said James Stewart Polshek last week in addressing those attending the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning Celebration and Naming Ceremony.

Polshek, who gave the principal address at the event, was for 15 years dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, where he remains on the faculty He founded the Polshek Partnership in New York City in 1963. The Partnership has received six national American Institute of Architects (AIA) awards and in 1992 received the highest honor given by the AIA to a professional practice.

Describing architecture as “a benign, constructive provocateur,” Polshek said he hoped Taubman’s gift will be used to help reconnect the profession of architecture to the community it should serve, charging that it has become increasingly disconnected from that community.

Sporting T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Taubman College 1999,’ faculty, students and staff posed for a ‘class photo’ following the naming and celebration ceremony last week. Photo by Bob Kalmbach
Polshek said he chose the field of architecture because he believed it might be a socially acceptable way to critique and reverse the loss of spatial identity in this country. The American culture goes from pulling up stakes to putting down roots, he said, and architecture is meant to put down roots. The “increasing homogenization” of the architectural landscape he sees across the country “brings despondence and is unhealthy. It indicates a loss of place.”

Little things, such as the new $20 bill, the “People magazine of currency,” and the absence of a city name on paper currency, are clues as to where we are going, he said.

“Architecture is grounded. That is its value.”

For students and faculty, Polshek detailed six conditions affecting the teaching and practice of architecture. These “constraining conditions,” which unfortunately are expandable, also are reversible, he said.

  • The very bad quality of building today, particularly government and institutional buildings, resulting in a loss of permanence. A number of factors produce this bad quality including the “deification of value engineering”; the lack of an industrious, skilled workforce; and an absence of original research “that can be reawakened here with this gift.”

  • The increasingly restrictive interpretation of statutes by regulatory commissions. Polshek said he is not against the commissions, “but it is a matter of degree of interpretation,” citing seismic codes for buildings in New York City and historic preservation efforts that sometimes get out of control. On the latter, he noted that issues of security and accessibility are important.

  • “Leaderless or bloated organizational structures,” reflected in some cases by self-centered mayors. There are “too few visionaries today,” he said.

  • The scarcity of young people in public agencies that deal with public policy and issues of design.

    Photo by Christopher Campbell, courtesy Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

  • Invasion of the profession by self-proclaimed experts. He also decried the “layers that separate us” brought about by consultants, client representatives, decorators, landscape architects and construction managers.

  • The wider distribution of “arcane prose” by journalists and others who are not necessarily qualified to write about architecture. Architectural writing is difficult, he conceded, often ranging from overly complex to too simplistic. We now have “architectural celebrities,” a result of the merger of design and fashion.

    The profession could use a dose of anonymity so it could get back to serious work, Polshek said.

    Architecture should be practiced in the service of others rather than for the self, he said. The Taubman gift “provides a historic opportunity to begin this process.”

    Placing the burden squarely on Dean Douglas S. Kelbaugh, Polshek concluded, “The Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning will be responsible for revolutionizing architecture education and the architecture profession in the United States.”

    See accompanying articles on the naming ceremony and Taubman's speech.