2018 Gold Medal Recipient
The Gold Medal is the AIA’s highest annual honor, recognizing individuals whose work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.
A founder of a highly decorated firm celebrated for its human-centered and inspiring design solutions, an educator of an entire generation of design professionals, and a generous creative spirit, James Stewart Polshek, FAIA, has crafted a legacy of idealism etched in every facet of his contributions to both society and the profession.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Polshek earned a Master of Architecture degree from Yale in 1955. The office that Polshek began in 1963 as, James Stewart Polshek Architect evolved through multiple iterations. Following his retirement in 2005, the firm transitioned in 2010 to Ennead Architects. Polshek has fostered an environment wherein design excellence, effective collaboration and rigorous research work in concert to create enduring architecture. His unparalleled vision and leadership has earned the firm countless accolades, including more than 200 design awards, the 1992 AIA Architecture Firm Award, and 15 National Honor Awards for Architecture.
“The true importance of architecture lies in its ability to solve human problems, not stylistic ones. A building is too permanent and too influential on public life and personal comfort to be created primarily as ‘public art',” Polshek wrote of his design philosophy in Context & Responsibility, a midpoint-career retrospective published in 1988. “Modern abstractions or nostalgia cannot themselves generate ideas for structures of lasting value. Only buildings that serve broadly defined social, political, or cultural objectives can achieve this.”
Over the course of four decades his firms have tackled vital research, cultural, and governmental projects— as well as mundane ones — that have enriched the lives of those in and near them. As the architect for the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark., completed in 2004, Polshek implemented a translucent crystalline bridge to calm the tension between monumentality and accessibility. Clad in glass, the bold cantilevered form is a metaphor for the 42nd president’s progressive ideals.
Polshek’s 1987 restoration and renovation of New York’s Carnegie Hall began with a master plan that helped establish his enduring approach to revitalization. A complete restoration of the hall’s original details as well as the implementation of new ones — lighting, graphics, and a new marquee — were coupled with a heavy dose of advocacy for landmark buildings threatened by market forces.
“While I have not visited every work that has resulted from his comprehensive practice, those that I have experienced stand out for their variety of function and unique fitness for purpose,” wrote Helen Searing, Alice Pratt Brown Professor Emerita of Art at Smith College, in a letter supporting Polshek’s nomination for the Gold Medal. “His drive to serve communities created a preference for designing structures to be experienced by the larger populace; thus small and precious domestic works are rare.”
In Washington, D.C., the 645,000-square-foot Newseum/Freedom Forum Headquarters, completed in 2008, is a monument to journalism and free speech. The architectural expression of the institution’s mission manifests in a symbol of openness: a 4,500-square-foot clear glass “window” woven into the fabric of the city’s Penn Quarter. Polshek’s National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, just a block from Independence Hall, references the immigrant experience in America through two interlocking volumes of opaqueness and transparency. The museum’s high-profile historical context bolsters its efforts to inspire people of all backgrounds.
“In over 50 years as an educator, a practitioner, and a critic, James Stewart Polshek has exemplified a humanist and collaborative approach to architecture; an approach that applies modernist ideas to social issues and that demonstrates the power of design,” wrote David Burney, FAIA, in a letter supporting Polshek’s nomination.
Concurrent to leading one of the nation's most recognized firms, Polshek served as dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation from 1972 to 1987. At the time, Columbia played a central role in the debate over style and meaning during a period in which architecture was being fundamentally questioned. His collaborative spirit led to a complete revision of the school’s curriculum and direction that, in turn, reversed its decline and attracted world-class faculty.
Polshek’s sensitivity as an architect and his willingness to give credit to others—whether they be his clients, partners, staff, or collaborators—have helped restore the promise that architecture can be an uplifting force in the world. Everywhere that he has worked, and throughout his eloquent writings, he has raised the level of discussion while pursuing an unambiguous goal of architecture as a healing art.