A Conversation with James Stewart Polshek: Architect, Scandinavia House

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James Stewart Polshek has designed such major renovation projects as the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Rose Earth and Space Center at the American Museum of Natural History, and Carnegie Hall. Most recently, the Polshek Partnership was selected to redesign the monumental main entrance to The Brooklyn Museum's Eastern parkway fa;ade.This interview was conducted in New York City in April 1999, shortly before the groundbreaking for Scandinavia House.

Question: Your interest in Scandinavian architecture and design goes back to the beginning of your career, when you were a Fulbright fellow in Denmark. Could you tell us about those experiences?

James Stewart Polshek: In 1956, 1 received a fellowship to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. I was young enough to absorb not only the design culture, which has always been very advanced, but also the popular culture. I got to know many industrial designers and graphic designers because of my frequent attendance at a jazz bar called the Galatea. I also traveled extensively and got to know a fair amount about the other Scandinavian countries.

What impressed me about Scandinavian design, then as now, was the lack of personalization. Throughout Scandinavia, there's a cultural horizontality, a collaborative spirit, between architects and designers. There are government-supported institutes of design research that foster this spirit. You also find evidence of it in the development of product lines, from LEGO to prefabricated housing components.

There were certain design giants, of course. But Arne Jacobsen, for example, was a very modest figure. Alvar Aalto was a standout in Finland - but Finland had at least two dozen architects almost equal in quality, some of whom had come out of Aalto's atelier, which was a national training ground. Maybe this resistance to celebrity was slightly less common in Norway and Sweden, but I think one found it across the board in Scandinavia. In that sense, there were similarities with Japan, which was the next place I visited, five or six years later.

That was very important to me, seeing that excellence in design didn't have to be linked to a towering personality. It's an ethic I hope is expressed in Scandinavia House.

Q: How would you characterize the overall impression Scandinavia House will make?

JSP: It's not a big building. The footprint is very tight - only a little over 50 feet in width - and the height of the base building is eight-five feet (not including the bulkhead, which sits back from the street), so it's about the same as the townhouses that used to stand on the property. Compared with the American Museum of Natural History, Scandinavia House is tiny. But in terms of its visibility, both architecturally and culturally, the project is very important.

The building is located at 58 Park Avenue South, between 37th and 38th Streets. Grand Central Terminal is four blocks north. The new Science Industry and Business Library is three blocks south, attached to the CUNY Graduate Center. The Morgan Library is down the block on Madison. There are diplomatic buildings all through the area, and the United Nations is four blocks to the east. It's a very exciting site, where the activities contained within the building will be extremely important to New York City and the country. They will represent five Scandinavian nations to the people of the United States.

For those reasons, I believe Scandinavia House has to be an uncompromised, truly modern building. I wanted it to be formally abstract but finely tailored, meaning that the quality of the detailing would be crucial. Thanks to the client, we had the opportunity to do just that. The building does make a statement. It's not a Bilbao kind of statement - it's quieter than that, in the Scandinavian spirit - but it's not conservative in any way. It is rare in New York City to be able to design a building of this quality on so visible a site. …