James Stewart Polshek: “Very Few People Understand Architectural Practice In This Day And Age”

With the publication of his new book Build, Memory, 84-year-old architect James Stewart Polshek talks to Co.Design about how the public misunderstands architecture, the problem with architectural monographs, and more.

After a prestigious, nearly six-decade career in architecture, James Stewart Polshek, 84, didn’t feel compelled to write a traditional architecture book. The genre, he says tends to fall into two categories: “For old folks, there are memoirs; for younger architects, it is a monograph–pretty much a marketing device.”


However Polshek slants it, Build, Memory (the title is a nod to Nabokov’s memoir) mixes a little bit of both approaches. The architect calls the photo-heavy tome designed by Pentagram’s Paula Scher “a work of graphic nonfiction,” and asserts that it is “a book that is really written for people that know only what they read in the newspapers about architecture. Very few people understand architectural practice in this day and age,” Polshek tells Co.Design.  

Perhaps so, though that may not be the audience the book draws. Build, Memory provides a detailed, contextual history of each of Polshek’s prestigious major works–but it’s a hefty introduction for the architecturally naive readers Polshek aims to educate. The anecdotes are conversational and punctuated by a plenty of images and diagrams, but those unfamiliar to architecture are unlikely to slog through a 500-page dissection of the highlights of Polshek’s career.

If you’re a fan, you’ll undoubtedly get insights into Polshek’s process. “Architecture is part of everybody’s lives. You don’t have to be a user of the building–you can be a passerby,” he says. The way the light reflects off the building, how the materials look and feel, whether the design creates or reduces anxiety–all these considerations touch the lives of the people around and within the structure. It is the architect’s “singular responsibility” to improve conditions, he explains.

Polshek is known for work that tries to be humanizing and people-centric, and for adding a modern element to the traditional–as he did with Carnegie Hall and The Brooklyn Museum. That said, Polshek does not carry a signature style from project to project. His best-known buildings include the Clinton Presidential Center and the American Museum of Natural History’s Rose Center for Earth and Space.

Get the book for $60 here.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.