Thursday, November 1, 2012

Percy Griffin, Architect And Teacher, Designs Mostly For Black Clients

When Percy Charles Griffin was growing up in Mississippi, he was always painting pictures. As a result, his mother told him that she felt he was a born architect. She knew, said Griffin, 39, that "I couldn't make any money at painting, so the next thing to that was to be an architect." At the time, Griffin "didn't know what the word 'architecture' meant. When I came up here [New York], I wanted to be an engineer." But math--a subject he was good in during his high school days--became a stumbling block  when he got to City College. He had lost interest in the subject. "I went to one of my professors," recalled Griffin while perched on a desk in his office above 125th Street and 7th Avenue, "and told him I had no interest. He said, 'Why don't you try architecture?' So sure enough, I did.There too I was very pathetic. The first semester I was very, very sad. Awful. Some of the professors didn't have any hope [for me], didn't have any faith. They felt that I was completely wasting my time trying to study architecture. But inside of me I knew that's what I wanted to do and that's what I would do. The next semester," he continued, "I went from sympathy to admiration. I led my class in the third semester [a year and a half after entering college]. I was at the top of my class." Griffin went on to an architectural award at City College for his thesis design. (The cardboard model was that of a four-story, block-long multi-service cultural center that included a 300-seat theatre, art gallery, restaurant, outdoor fountain and garden, et cetera. If the project had not had funding problems, it would have been constructed on the block located at 8th Avenue and 121st Street. The site is presently a community garden.)

Griffin, the third of four children, is the only one in his family to have gone to college. His parents, despite their lack of formal education (his mother, a housewife, went only as far as the 6th grade; his father, a longshoreman, could not read or write), understood the value of an education. His father would not allow any of his children to work during the summer because he was afraid it would discourage them from going to school.

Griffin's decision to go to college came after he had attended a technical school in Brooklyn and landed a job in the office of Philip Johnson, the famous architect who later designed the AT&T Building in midtown Manhattan. "I went to school because everyone [in Johnson's office] were college graduates. Princeton, Harvard, all over. I really wanted to complete my education. So he [Johnson] told me, 'Fine. We will make this office fit your school program.' I went to City College for five years, taking off one, two, three days every week and they didn't deduct any money from my salary. I was doing regular architectural development, drafting, design development. Same as anyone else. At that time, I had gotten very, very good at it. Very talented." (Griffin gives Johnson credit for helping him in his school projects by evaluating them.) After graduation in 1972, Griffin took the architecture licensing exam; he passed it.

He tells an interesting story of how he came to get the job in Philip Johnson's office. After two years in one architectural firm, Griffin went "looking around for another job in architecture. One of the agencies sent me to Philip Johnson. I didn't want to work in that office because it was too prestigious for me. They offered me a job the very same day. Three weeks later I was standing at the newsstand on Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street when one of the bosses from Johnson came by. He said to me, 'I thought you wanted a job.' I said, 'A job?' He said, 'Yes, you came up to the office looking for a job three weeks ago.'" When the man announced he was from Johnson's office, Griffin replied, "I couldn't pay for the job. They wanted too much money." It was 12 noon. The man told Griffin to call him at 3 p.m. When Griffin called, the man told him, "We gave the agency the money. What's your excuse now?" The following Money morning was the beginning of a five-year association with the firm.

The office he is presently in was once the workspace of the renowned black architect John Louis Wilson, now retired. (Wilson was the first black to graduate from the School of Architecture at Columbia University.) Griffin worked out of Wilson's officer as an independent architect. Today he is in partnership with Stuart Furman, his former teacher at the Brooklyn technical school. (Furman, who is white, teaches at the New York Institute of Technology's Manhattan campus, near Columbus Circle, where Griffin also teaches.)

To Griffin architecture is the best of two world: aesthetics and technology, "It's very artistic. You have to have a concept. You have to have imagination and then you turn right around with this imagination, understanding the technical part of [architecture], which is the engineering, the structure, the mechanical, the electrical, and energy conservation. It's a mixture of many different fields. Not only the design or the technical  but sociology, philosophy, history. I feel that history is a major part of understanding architecture. Where it came from, the different periods it went through. You need to know the history of architecture and the history of the world. I feel that without the history, you would not have much depth as an architect.

"As we look around today, we see a little of many different styles creeping into architecture: the Renaissance, the Gothic, Byzantine, and so on. We went to one period back in the '50s where we had steel and glass, the glass boxes." Many of these buildings can be found on Park Avenue, north of Grand Central Terminal. For example, the Lever Brothers Building. This style  is called "modern" architecture. Now we're the post-modern period in which architects borrow from other architectural styles. Said Griffin about post-modernism, or what he calls "eclectic architecture": "It's like baking a cake. If you have the right ingredients, it will be tasty. So's architecture."

A majority of Griffin's clients--75 percent to be exact--are black individuals who hire him to do home renovations He also does design work for churches (such as the cultural and community center of the Thessalonian Baptist Church in the Bronx) and day care centers (two or three centers a year). His many clients include Sylvia's Restaurant on Lenox Avenue, actor Irving Lee (of the soap opera The Edge of Night), and Dr. Billy Jones, a psychiatrist at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, who lives in Griffin's neighborhood [in Harlem].

Griffin, who said he works very hard but enjoys his work, looks at 1983 as his best year professionally. However, he does have a gripe. He feels that the black community as a whole does not "want to use the professionals that are available to them. How many projects that I see going up in Harlem, the Bronx, Chicago, all over, and no black architect [is involved]. They wouldn't have a black architect. We could survive pretty well if we could get our 10 percent or 15 percent of the money for construction. A black preacher will go to a white architect," Griffin continued, noting the number of buildings going up or being remodeled because of church involvement. "How can he be a leader and not know where black architects are and not realize it's a hard struggle for black architects?"

At the Convent Avenue Baptist Church, he is on the committee that is helping to build "a connection between the church building and the office building." No doubt his church realizes the full value of his  experience and expertise.

At the New York Institute of Technology, Griffin teaches design. He has been there for eight years. He holds several positions at the school. Among them is the position of assistant director of the architecture department. NYIT, he said, "is 10 to 15 percent minority. Maybe. I noticed lately my classes have been all white. If I have a class of 14, 15, maybe I'm lucky to have two blacks. They may be from Africa, the West Indies, or some other place." Very few of his students are black Americans.

In his offices in Harlem, Griffin employs four young draftsmen: two Spanish-speaking females, an African, and a black American graduate of Hampton Institute in Virginia.

For relaxation, Griffin studies painting at the Art Students League. His specialty is abstract oil painting. Doing them gives him peace of mind. When he is painting, there is no need to respond to the wishes of clients or to construction budgets; he has complete freedom of expression. The paintings in his home are so good that people upon seeing them for the first time offer to buy them. Initially he declined these offers because he felt he would not have any paintings for himself. But now, with more than enough to share, he is willing to sell some of them.

When I asked him what advice he would give to students interested in pursuing a career in architecture, he told me that they should not go into the profession with the thought of making a lot of money. "Learn all you can. Work hard. you won't get rich." (It should be noted that architecture is not one of the highest paid fields. The amount of construction work available depends on the ups and downs of the economy.)

Griffin has never dreamt of designing skyscrapers. He couldn't explain why. But he, in a moment of prophecy, sees the day when skyscrapers will be on the drawing boards of black architects. He doesn't believe it will happen in his lifetime, even if he lived to be 150. "It's too far in the future for me to have a dream of being a part of it. Society," he continued, "is not ready for a black man to get involved with that kind of money transaction."

This condensed article was originally published in the Harlem Weekly newspaper in 1984.

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