Formative Expression - Architectural Digest

Formative Expression

James Polshek's 1965 Poolhouse for Edgar Bronfman, Sr.

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It is indeed rare to discover an early residential project by the eminent architect James Polshek, whose firm, Polshek Partnership Architects, is known for its large scale institutional buildings of the highest order, such as the American Museum of Natural History's Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York, the Santa Fe Opera and Little Rock, Arkansas's William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. While most architects start their practices with small houses for family or friends, gradually building up to larger commissions, Polshek left his architectural peers in the dust, moving to Japan in 1962, shortly after graduating from Yale School of Architecture, to design and build two enormous research institutes for Teijin Limited.

Fortunately, during his time at Yale, Polshek had impressed Philip Johnson, who had seen his work. Returning to New York, Polshek had landed back on earth and in a sense needed to begin his career again, this time modestly-with kitchen and bath renovations. Fortunately, during his time at Yale, Polshek had impressed Philip Johnson, who, while a pan of a thesis jury, had seen his work. Johnson subsequently hosted a series of private soirees to introduce various visiting luminaries, such as Mies van der Rohe, to select students, Polshek among them. In 1965 Johnson, always the mischievous one, recommended both Polshek and another young architect, Robert Venturi, to the socially influential Edgar Bronfman, Sr., for an intimate invited competition to design a recreation pavilion for his home in Purchase, New York. Venturi's design is a mystery, as all records-as well as his memory-have failed to register any drawings or models.

Polshek won the prestigious Bronfman commission with a surprisingly modest design that defers to the main house, a 1936 Mott Schmidt Georgian confection. Bronfman was the head of MGM Studios at the time, and it is enticing to muse on the role of Bronfman's sister, Phyllis Lambert, a confidant of Johnson's and the client for the Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe's masterpiece, in securing Polshek the job.

The program for the project was a poolhouse, a screening room and a place for Bronfman's animal heads from his trophy-hunting days, something his wife, Ann, sensibly refused to allow in the main house. In Polshek's design, the poolhouse is partially buried under earth berms and sited at a right angle to the symmetrical mass of the main house, a central pavilion Ranked by two subordinate wings. It is set on two levels; the upper contains dressing rooms, a bath and a billiard parlor and is accessible directly from the pool. On the lower level, reached by a dramatic stair that spills onto this level, are the screening room and living room. A central spine organizes the plan into two rectangles. From the air, it looks remarkably like one of the side wings of the main house. With its angled roofs set into and reflecting the slope of the adjoining landscape, it also recalls the main pavilion of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, a fitting homage to the great architect who respected the earth and the landscape of a site. With its clear articulation of structure and materials, including reclaimed brick and a zinc roof, it also recalls the work of one of Polshek's teachers at Yale, the architect Louis Kahn. On the whole, it clearly illustrates one of the more profound lessons of the best of modem architecture: A structure can relate to the context and history of a place by contrast yet echo the forms and shapes of the past without literally re-creating them. If the project had been constructed a few years later, amid the revival of classical architecture via postmodernism, the poolhouse perhaps would have been designed by Allan Greenberg, in the same Georgian style as the main house. Here, the Bronfmans were fortunate to have been in the hands of a modem master who knew how to create something unique and compatible without copying the design of the main house. As befits what essentially is a garden folly in the grand tradition, the party held on the grounds outside of the Polshek designed building for Bronfman 's 40th birthday was a bizarre affair, complete with a tranquilized live lion wandering among the guests, which caused quite a commotion, although the intention was to pay homage to the famous MGM studio mascot.

With its clear articulation of structure and materials, including brick and a zinc roof, it recalls the work of Polshek's teacher at Yale, Louis Kahn. Polshek considers the Bronfman poolhouse to be an important project in his career, one that demonstrates a number of principles that have informed his architecture over four decades. His most significant concept is that a building should be "contextually appropriate" and fit into its setting and have "architectonic integrity" and a human scale for everyone to enjoy. In this respect, the poolhouse is a microcosm, a laboratory to explore ideas that can be developed in larger projects something Polshek has done with great success since then.

Unfortunately, the Bronfmans eventually demolished the poolhouse, before selling the property and the still-extant Schmidt design altogether. Only the photographs are left to recall Polshek's exceptional contribution to what was a very special estate.


November 5, 2006

Alexander Gorlin