News & Politics

What Made Me: Architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen

The esteemed architect on finding god, knowing history, and his famous mentor.

Photograph by Douglas Sonders.

The early job: Before architecture school, I was a painter. I’d do a portrait for $400—in the ’50s, that was a reasonable amount. My father said, “Let’s put art and business together, and that’s architecture.” I went to Yale, studied architecture, and found God.

The mentor: I studied with the great Louis Kahn. After I’d been out of school five years, one of my projects was on the cover of Architectural Record. One day my secretary said, “There’s a Mr. Kahn on the phone.” The tradition in architecture schools is that when the master comes by, you stand and he sits, so I found myself [on the phone] standing next to my desk. He said, “I saw that house in Architectural Record.” I lowered my eyes and smoothed the rug with my toe. He said, “We all have to do a house like that someday, and I hope to hell you got it out of your system.” He was the most important influence of my life.

The quote: Philip Johnson said, “You cannot not know history.” Architecture is the one profession where you’re proud to say, “Yes, I grew out of that building”—unlike painting, where you have to be original. In architecture you just have to be good.

Favorite DC building: The White House. To understand it, you have to go inside. You’re not aware of how high the floor is above Pennsylvania Avenue till you get in and look at each window as it addresses itself to the avenues. You’re really on a podium. It’s just beautiful. When you’re invited for dinner—go.

This article appears in the June 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.