Profile: Lee Polisano

American Lee Polisano, president of PLP Architecture, tells FX why the lure of architecture won him away from the ski slopes of Switzerland...


Words by Emily Martin

'I didn't always know that I wanted to be an architect, but people who built things surrounded me,' he says quietly. I am sitting with architect Lee Polisano, president of PLP Architecture in its London office. It's my first-time meeting with one of London's most high-profiled architects and I expected someone that was a little more, well, loud.

Answering my question about what inspired him to become an architect, he does so in a softly spoken voice. He comes across as having a gentle and grounded nature. 'My grandfathers were builders and my mother let us build things around the house, just because we liked to do it,' he continues. 'For example, she let us build a garage when I was 12 and my brother was seven - then she tore it down because it was unsafe.'

Lee Polisano
Lee Polisano

Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Polisano describes growing up 'in a very different world in every single way possible,' and left the shore to attend university in Philadelphia, initially to study geology. 'Atlantic City is famous for a whole variety of reasons, none of them really good, and everything you read about it, is all true! It's a tough place,' he says. At 18, shortly after starting his geology course, Polisano decided to take a year out of university in favour of spending time in Switzerland to go skiing. It was during this time that he became inspired by architecture. 'I was exposed to some European architects such as Le Corbusier and I when I returned to the USA that's when I decided to study architecture and industrial design,' he says.

After graduating from his architecture and industrial design degree Polisano worked for Kevin Roche, an architect Polisano had aspired to work for after completing his course. He explains: 'I spent a few years with him, then when to work for an equally as important person in the industrial design world; Eliot Noyes.' In 1980 Polisano went to work for Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) and was made a partner for the practice when he was in his early 30s. Shortly afterwards, in 1989, he co-founded the London office and led major European projects including the Heron Tower, London's first build-to-suit multi-tenant office building. 'It took us 14 years!' says Polisano, explaining a sense of achievement the project gave him. 'Just before it was complete we started our new practice (PLP Architecture), but the client stayed very loyal to us and kept us involved with that and new things. It felt great and still feels nice to have been a part of it - seems like a long time ago.'

Polisano says the project held further significance for architecture - particularly London-based architecture - as it proved that tall buildings don't necessarily harm a historical environment. Completing other projects such as The Pinnacle, the tallest building in London's central business district, as well as a number of projects in the Middle East - including the expansion of the Abu Dhabi International Airport and Aerospace City Masterplan in Qatar - some of the KPF London partners started to notice a shift within the business. More specifically the direction the KPF office was heading compared to its New York office. Polisano says: 'Our clients were slightly different and, in the European and British context, the process is very different.'

The reception and lobby space of the Heron Tower, London, a project of Kohn Pederson Fox (International) in which Lee Polisano was partner-in-charge
The reception and lobby space of the Heron Tower, London, a project of Kohn Pederson Fox (International) in which Lee Polisano was partner-in-charge

He pauses and prepares for an uncomfortable (and well-documented) subject. In his measured and collected manner, he continues: 'Naturally our principles about how we approach design and what the building represented as a body of work started to grow apart from what the rest of the practice was doing. We reached a point in our evolution, we philosophically felt, where we were starting to become very different. At the same time we valued the connections - the clients were very important and the people who worked for us were very important. So looking for a way to hold that together and after trying to reconcile it within the partnership, we took a decision to leave.'

The five founding PLP Archtecture members - Polisano, David Leventhal, Karen Cook, Ron Bakker, Fred Pilbrow - had all previously been partners at KPF's London office. When leaving KPF Polisano says that many clients followed, in addition to its staff members, to the newly founded PLP Architecture in 2009. It created one of the biggest disputes in architecture history. 'We tried to leave in a more natural way, but it ended up being quite a controversial and difficult divorce especially after David [Leventhal] and I had been partners at KPF for for than 20 years,' says Polisano. In 2010 the practiced agreed a settlement with KPF, with Polisano keen to move on and leave behind any former troubles.

Now five years on PLP Architecture employs more than 180 staff - including architects, urban designers, landscape architects, interior architects and practitioners from other specialist disciplines. It is currently working on projects across a range of sectors in China, the Middle East and Europe, one of which is the Francis Crick Institute in King's Cross, a joint project with HOK that was first launched as a competition ('It's a very exciting building to be involved with; we're really proud to win the competition to do that,' he says) and scheduled to open this year.

Responsible for the building's facade and some of the interior public spaces, the practice's design features a prominent sweeping roof - it is sure to be added to London's iconic building list in addition to Polisano's portfolio of statement buildings.

'Well, we don't think that every building should be that way,' he says as I wonder aloud whether there is an intention is to continually create focally designed buildings. 'We see that there is equal value in a city for having good background buildings as there is for the foreground buildings - and we're very happy to create really good background buildings.' Believing in the importance of, what he describes as, 'foreground' and 'background' buildings, Polisano says that starting his own practice meant having more choice - something that he says was previously limited when part of a larger organisation.

'We can now take tiny little buildings that may not make financial sense for a big organisation, and spend a lot of time doing a nice job on it and it can exist as a nice background building on a street somewhere. And we can pursue a high-profile building too. Now we have that range in our portfolio.'

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