The Big Idea: Criticality and Practice in Contemporary Architectures


In this engaging memoir from the design partner of award-winning Los Angeles architecture firm Johnson Fain, the author shares his personal experiences as a designer on the rise in the latter half of the twentieth century as he considers the last forty years of the relationship between practice and theory in American architecture. From his childhood days in California’s Salinas Valley to his tenure with legendary architect Philip Johnson to his time with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to the formation of his own firm and its rise toward the top of the architectural firmament, Johnson’s unique insight makes for a fascinating discussion of each of the major movements that have characterized the world of architecture since Modernism.


Scott Johnson

Scott Johnson is the Design Partner at Johnson Fain, an international architecture, planning and interior design firm based in Los Angeles. A prolific designer of residential, institutional and commercial buildings, a number of his best-known designs are widely published and have become landmarks. Current work includes the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City; a renovation of Philip Johnson’s Chrystal Cathedral in Garden Grove; The Great Wall Winery Hotel and Visitor Center in China, as well as multiple residential towers and mixed-use projects throughout Los Angeles.


The Big Idea uses an autobiographical approach to explore issues of how large theoretical ideas influence day-to-day architectural practice. Architect Scott Johnson has, over the last few decades, been privileged to work in rarified environments in Berkeley, New York and Los Angeles when big ideas of architectural theory were emerging. This is an account of how one architect has made sense of his time and place.

Younger architects, for whom the unraveling of modernist orthodoxy and the emergence of various alternative ways of thinking about and designing architecture is already a chapter in the history books, will find Johnson’s account particularly interesting. His professional experiences with some of the most important names in the world of architecture are both informative and entertaining in this very personal journey through the overarching themes of contemporary architecture and the discovery of professional practice. Ultimately, The Big Idea is Scott Johnson’s testimony in defense of architecture as a life-affirming art.

Additional information

Dimensions 6 × 8 in

Paperback w/ flaps, 192 pages



2 reviews for The Big Idea: Criticality and Practice in Contemporary Architectures

  1. Avatar

    Dennis P. Doordan Chair, Department of Art, Art History and Design University of Notre Dame

    “The Big Idea is a series of dispatches from the front lines of the intellectual battles over the meaning of architecture in a postmodern world. Johnson shows that architecture—good architecture—is neither an intellectual abstraction nor a commodity, it is an experience choreographed by the architect and completed by the users through their own openness to the experience.”

  2. Avatar

    Scott Johnson, FAIA

    “Many visible and accomplished theorists and practitioners alike are voicing support for the notion that criticality, or theory, is no longer meaningful in the making of a relevant and powerful architecture. The academic and the practitioner seem finally, or momentarily, to agree: theory and design have no need for each other. It is precisely this agreement of which I am suspicious and which I investigate in The Big Idea and I now feel certain that the interplay of criticality and practice continues to be a more than useful, if complex, marriage.”

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