Sunday, November 17, 2013

Benjamin Polk: Forgotten Mid-Century Modernist with Deep Asian Connections

Browsing through back issues of The Californian this morning I ran across this fascinating article on mid-century modernist architect Benjamin Polk's Wallace Residence in the San Francisco Bay area community of Belvedere. Does anyone out there know if it still exists? A quick Google search led me to his archive at UC-Berkeley's fantastic Environmental Desgn Archives where his papers reside. The finding aid link leads to a description of Polk's fascinating career (see below).

"Home...Between Air and the Earth," The Californian, August, 1949, pp. 40-41.

Benjamin Kauffman Polk was born in 1916 in Des Moines, Iowa. He attended Amherst College, the University of Chicago, and studied structural engineering at Iowa State University. In 1952 he earned an equivalent master's degree from the School of Planning, Gordon Square, London, in the field of Research in Regional Development. Polk served in the U.S. Army from 1942 until 1946, and married Emily De Spain, poet, artist, and designer in 1946.

Polk practiced architecture in San Francisco from 1946-1952, and in Asia from 1952-1966. He designed and constructed more than fifty projects during this time. In 1957 he established the partnership of Chatterjee and Polk, which become the largest architecture firm in Asia. His major projects include: The Jallian Walabagh National Memorial in Amritsar, India, the Royal Palace for King of Nepal in Katmandu, and the great Buddhist Tipitaka Library in Rangoon, Burma. He also designed many large commercial and industrial buildings, universities and schools, and a theater in Calcutta, India.

In 1966 he returned to California, settling in Los Osos. From 1966-1980 he was a professor of architecture at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. During these years he also developed an improvisational piano technique, and traveled to Paris in 1977 to study with French composer Nadia Boulanger. After living in Salisbury, England, from 1981-1991, he returned to his home in Los Osos, California.

Polk is the author of "Architecture and the Spirit of the Place," published in Calcutta in 1961, and "India Notebook - Two Americans in South Asia of Nehru's Time," written with his wife Emily.

With his deep Asian connections and passion for music Polk's career appears to be a fascinating line of research to pursue. The place to begin would be Berkeley with a follow-up trip to Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo. Here is a link to a Selected Polk Bibliography. Happy hunting.