What is the most important piece of architecture built since 1980? Vanity Fair’s survey of 52 experts, including 11 Pritzker Prize winners, has provided a clear answer: Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. But parsing the votes, which also anointed Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection, Peter Zumthor’s Thermal Baths, and Sir Norman Foster’s HSBC Building, among other significant structures, Matt Tyrnauer examines the complex legacy of Modernism and the impact of its greatest renegade.

…In February 1998, at the age of 91, Philip Johnson, the godfather of modern architecture, who 40 years earlier had collaborated with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the iconic Seagram Building, in Manhattan, traveled to Spain to see the just-completed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

He stood in the atrium of the massive, titanium-clad structure with its architect, Frank Gehry, as TV cameras from Charlie Rose captured him gesturing up to the torqued and sensually curving pillars that support the glass-and-steel ceiling and saying, “Architecture is not about words. It’s about tears.” Breaking into heavy sobs, he added, “I get the same feeling in Chartres Cathedral.” Bilbao had just opened its doors, but Johnson, the principal apostle of the two dominant forms of architecture in the 20th century—Modernism and Postmodernism—and the design establishment’s ultimate arbiter, was prepared to call it on the spot. He anointed Gehry “the greatest architect we have today” and later declared the structure “the greatest building of our time.”