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Renowned architect James Stewart Polshek talks about the World Trade Center, Bill Clinton and the Virginia Museum. 

Invisible Buildings

James Stewart Polshek is an internationally renowned, New York City-based architect. His firm, Polshek Partnership Associates, is receiving considerable kudos for its recently completed Rose Center for Earth and Space at New York City's American Museum of Natural History near Central Park. He is currently developing plans for the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock.

Polshek was in Richmond last month to deliver the keynote address at "Building Virginia," the annual conference of the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects. On Nov. 1 Style chatted with him at the Carpenter Center ("It's a candy store," he said as he surveyed the former movie palace's interior. "A fantasy, and at times we need fantasy.") He has no projects here, but has some thoughts on Richmond.

Style: A hot topic of discussion is what should be done at the site of the former World Trade Center. What are your thoughts?

Polshek: I've chosen to stay out of the fray. I have so many complex feelings. Our offices are a little over a mile away: I watched it happen. It is unseemly and premature to rush to make judgments of an event that's so unprecedented and central to the history of our country. As our American system has become more and more successful, materialism has been deified. We have had a selective memory and forgotten much of the rest of the world.

Obviously, rebuilding the towers as they were would be an act of masochism. Is building another financial center there out of the question? Employees may not want to go back there so quickly. There's fear.

It goes without saying that there must be a memorial. [But] there's an old saying: "You can build it fast, cheap or beautiful. Choose two." They are going to go for fast and cheap, and it is going to be ugly.

What is the state of arts education in the United States and what influenced you early on?

We should start teaching visual literacy in grammar schools, not too early and not too late. It's almost too late when students get to college. There have been some attempts, but we don't put a high value on visual literacy. I can't help but think that won't change [with the continuing popularity and exposure to computers, motion pictures, television]. We're living in a period where visual information is so important.

Early influences on me were Louis Kahn [American architect 1901-74] and Carlo Scarpa [a 20th century Italian architect] and their "God is in the details" philosophy and how they dealt with issues of light. But perhaps just as important were Cistercian abbeys and Japanese gardens and teahouses. These were designed by architects who were anonymous. These buildings are to be seen and not heard. Architecture should be seen and not heard. We should make buildings as invisible as possible.

How have you found working with former President Clinton on the design of his presidential library?

We are in the design-development phase, which is the most important step. President Clinton has a steel trap of a mind. You show him a schematic design and then you show him the same design some time later when changes have been made. He sees the changes instantly. He's very perceptive and very clear about the basics of what he wants.

Rick Mather, a prominent London architect, has been selected to undertake a major expansion of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. What should he encounter on that project?

Our firm was interviewed for that project and didn't get it. American architects are losing commissions left and right to Europeans. But he is a very fine architect and you don't mind losing out to someone you respect.

Our most prestigious American institutions are value engineering everything to death. When European firms get commissions here everyone expects them to build jewels, but the architects yell and scream that the budgets are too low. He is going to have problems. [European architects] have very high standards, and the expenditures here are not what they are in Europe.

What is Richmond's potential architecturally and how do you perceive this town?

History means so much more here than in other cities where we have worked — in Omaha, Oklahoma City and Akron, my hometown, where our National Inventors Hall of Fame and Convention Center is a jewel of a building. In Richmond, with every step you take you hit history. This would be a very rich place to work. Richmond is a gold mine of opportunity. There's an optimism here and a can-do
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