Percy Griffin is an Architect in New York and a Professor at the School of Architecture at NYIT.
So, what’s your story ?
I’m an architect … and I was born and raised in the state of Mississippi. I had never had a T-Square till I came to NY. My family were sharecroppers.
In the early part of my education we had to walk three miles to school and three miles back, whereas the whites had busses to ride. We did not have the facilities in our school to give us all we needed, but we made the best we could with what we had.
I graduated from high-school and I was the top of my class, and came to NY.
My mother said that I was born to be an architect even though she didn’t really know what the word meant, because she said that I used to be attracted to drawings and models and building miniatures etc. She said that her son (me) was different from her other sons (4 of us). So, that was the beginning of the idea.
I came to NY and started school, but had to take many remediate courses. That is when I discovered that any African American (back then called a “negro”) who was accepted in any school in this country, Mississippi would pay their tuition and pay for them to travel back and forth twice a year. They didn’t want anybody knowing that of course, so I didn’t know either and no one else knew it either. It was a cover-up for the federal government’s “separate but equal” policies.
There were a lot of people that helped me in the beginning of my career. For example, a lady named Ruth Hersh – an employment agent somewhere in the 50s – called me and told me that Philip Johnson was looking for a worker, and wanted to cross the fence and hire a black (I was one of the first ones that he hired).
I worked for Philip Johnson for 5 years. It was the experience of my life. that was where I was really able to mend the areas that needed to be mended, which was necessary for me to be an architect. I was there for about a month. I went there early spring. As I was looking around, everyone there was either from Princeton, Harvard, University of Tokyo, Yale … the best universities on the planet. So, I’m looking around, and I’m like “I gotta go back to school”! And I became friends with most of the workers. They were very nice to me. So, I spoke with some of them and said that I had to go back to school, and I don’t have the money to do that, and I have to use my money to live and pay the rent, so maybe I could work part-time and go back … “I’m gonna ask Mr Johnson”… “Oh no”, they said, “don’t do that because you are extremely sensitive and he’ll insult you”. Some of the workers wanted to teach, and when they told him, he ran up and got a check, and gave them the check and said “get out of my office”!!! He was a mean man. So, I said to myself after a couple of weeks went by, “well … he’s gonna have to tell me to go”. So, I went up, and I said “Mr Johnson I’d like to go back to school”. He said “Good!” So I said, “yes, but I want to work here part time”… “I DON’T DO THAT!!!”, he said … I said “Thank you sir”… Before I could get to the door he said “STOP!” And then I turned around he said “but in your case I will make an exception and my office will fit your school’s schedule”. He paid me full pay, the same pay he gave to the architects that had already graduated, for 5 years, and I took off any day that my class was going on, and he never took off a dime. He kept paying me the same he paid everyone else… for five long years. And he also gave me personal crits on my school projects… for five long years! My fellow students at the school would pay no attention to the professors about the assignment. They’d wait for me to come through the door and ask “what did Philip Johnson say about the assignment?” And the teachers would get so upset. That is a true story! At his office I got the chance to meet Louis Kahn, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and others and go to parties with them, because they all knew Philip Johnson and he would invite everyone to the party. I wouldn’t trade that for any school in the entire world: Going to school up at City College, and being in the office of Philip Johnson.
Do you think that just that interaction with Philip Johnson on a daily basis was as critical as a formal architectural education?
Yes, I do, because architecture is more than sitting in a studio and many of the professors at school were very prejudice. They were not ready to work with and teach an African-American. I think I was blessed and lucky to have been in that office. On top of all of that of course, you needed talent. I would proclaim that I truly had the talent and ability to be an architect.
What do you think it means to have the talent to be an architect?
It means the creativity, the mind to put things together, the mind to be compassionate, the mind to understand the needs of the users, etc. My clients are not rich clients, but they need architecture. Out of a few pennies I can put, I believe, the best they could get to transform their space into an environment that they would enjoy. I feel very confident about that. It has been my goal, my passion and what I do.
Is this ability to improve space what you love the most about architecture?
Yes. I love to help the people that are not rich but need what they need. If they need a home, they should get a home. A home is an investment, so they call upon an architect because the state requires an architect. The joy of having a home to them has nothing to do with architecture, BUT I try to give them all that they can get. And the pleasure when they have a home and it is ready and they walk into it often makes them say things like “we had no idea it would be like this”.
Here is another example:
In my career I have worked on a variety of different structures, from homes, to public buildings, churches to funeral homes. There was this particular funeral home, where the client wanted to add eight more chapels to the ones he already had. He showed me the space and he said, “professor Griffin, I need eight more chapels and you were recommended to me. There are architects here that all they do is do funeral homes, but I would like for you to do it”. There was one single hallway, with six chapels on the one side and six chapels on the other. I said “oh my god, you cannot do this” completely unconsciously and talking to myself. He said “why!”. I said “you cannot have all these chapels next to each other in a straight corridor and everyone having their service together and coming out and they are overcome with grief and then on top of that everybody is experiencing everybody else’s grief! “ I was talking to myself … he said “really ? What would you do?” I said “I would have the corridor go around a round wall, which would create four separate spaces. So, if one was at one end they would never meet someone at the other end of the corridor. And I tell you, we built it like that and it was most successful. EXTREMELY successful! You HAVE to have compassion for others and what you are doing. You have to live it. I have done a lot of daycare centers. I remember once I was working on a daycare center, and I wasn’t sure how the children would react after the space was completed. I went down to the old center and ask the director “could I fill a couple of cars with a few children? I’d like to take them to the new space”. The space came from my mind but I was trying to be a two-year-old. They got in there and went “WOW”. I walked out, tears were in my eyes. Job Well Done!!!! For me, that is what architecture is all about. Meeting the expectation of how the space will be used. It’s not about the money. Everyone needs architecture. The rich need architecture, and the poor need architecture. I work for the Poor! And I enjoy it!
So you feel that architecture has a special social purpose?
Yes, because there is a lot of need for improvement. If you are very lucky and it is something that you really enjoy it is not about work.
I tell youngster when they ask how much money they’ll make and such. “You’ll make a living”, and there are many architects that are very rich, but that’s not all. It’s far from being all. There is a lot in between. You should make a living of course, and the joy of the thing should be to be doing what you love to do, and if you are lucky enough, it will be all you want to do.
Whose vision is more important? Yours, the client’s or the theorist’s?
I try to expedite my client’s vision. That’s more important to me. But, to give them a little bit more than their expectation. They have an idea, they have a need, but in that need to give them a taste of honey is my purpose. If they are spending their money, then they should be able to get the best. As a professional, I would be very displeased if I only gave them what they need.
Is it poetics or function that are more important?
Poetics. It’s the music. Who’s gonna dance by your music! That’s what it is about.
I did a lot of churches. And again, I like to test my work. Once it is completed I like to test it. Not every piece, but to a good extent. I recall renovating this Baptist chapel on 114 street and Lenox Ave. A minister came to me (I am a deacon in the church) and said Deacon Griffin I understand you are an architect, and I need to do some work on the church. I did the work and even the little children when they walked in the chapel they knew that it had transformed into a musical piece. This is a response that I believe we all should seek when we do our work. Do it the best that you can. You will put a lot of time in it, you won’t make a lot of money, but do it the best that you can!
Do you think there are limits to what an Architect can do?
You have to know thyself and know the client as well in order to understand what you could do to help the client. You have to think of that because otherwise it can lead to a very sad end.
As an educator, what would you say to young architects? What is the number one principle to having a successful architectural career?
I would think the first priority would be to make sure to know that this is what you want to do. It is very unfortunate if you don’t find out in an early stage. Architecture is not a picnic. You have to discipline yourself to count sand in the desert in a thousand degrees. You also need a family, and they must understand that you love what you do and allow you to do it.
Young architects tend to value awards more than actual accomplishments. What do you think?
Somewhere in the scripture it says that you should do things in quietness and that will blossom out. That doesn’t necessarily work in New York, but to go for the Marquee, you have to do the best, fight a good fight (in your own arena), and leave it there. Of course everybody would love to be published and recognized. Everybody likes a pat on the back. A publication is a joy for that reason, but that is all it is. It is not the essence. If you have the talent in fact it is good for the profession if you get publicity. However, if you don’t have the talent, it is not good for the profession.