Philip Johnson, he of the famous glass house, cast stones at the American Institute of Architects a few months ago. Stay out of design and stick to liability insurance, he told an AIA design conference.

Yesterday, the professional organization hit back.

AIA announced that Philip Johnson will receive its coveted gold medal - for the excellence of his design, including the glass house he built for himself in 1949 - at its convention at Dallas next May.

In the 71 years since the AIA gold medal award was inaugurated, only 40 architects have received it. The list is erratic.

Some names on the list are barely remembered if indeed they were ever well known. Some great architects received the gold medal only grudgingly - either after they were dead, like Louis H. Sullivan, John Wellborn Root or Richard Neutra, or, as in the case of the 80-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright, once their fame was so well established that it became embarrassing for their colleagues (and competitors) not to recognize it.

Philip Johnson, 71, however, is very much alive, competing and forever kicking over his own dieta. The fascinating evolution of his architectural style and philosophy may be best summarized as "from Mies to Mies."

And there is no question that he belongs on the architectural Olympus with the best of them.Besides, he has the virtues of being erudite, witty, effervescent and rich.

Johnson, in the early '30s almost single-handedly introduced Modern architecture in the United States, several years before its European pioneer. Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, arrived on these shores as refugees from Hitler.

Johnson was also among the first Modern American architects to tire of the bare, square and self-conscious efforts of Modernism and to declare that "you cannot not know history." That was the time in the early '60s when he softened the Bauhaus box with elegant allusions to historic styles - arches and columns, shadows and a ceremonions progression of spaces and experiences in and around the building.

That was also the time when he said in an interview, "I call myself a traditionalist, although I have fought against tradition all my life. I like to be buttoned onto tradition. The thing is to improve it, twist it and mold it; to make something new of it; not to deny it. The riches of history can be plucked at any point."

It was the time when, plucking from history he designed Washington's Museum for Pre-Columbian Art, all but hidden by the greenery of Dumbarton Oaks. It is, if you will, a modern rococo pavilion.

It was the time when he designed several museums - the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art at Fort Worth and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at Lincoln, Neb., among others - that are frankly temples of the arts, without stealing entablatures from the gods.

It was the time when Philip Johnson participated in the planning of Lincoln Center in New York and designed the center's New York State Theater, which is not half as bad as Johnson himself and others now find it fashionable to say it is.

It was, I think, his best period - a graceful way out of the box that Mies van der Rohe (with whom he designed the Seagram Building in New York City) had put architecture in.

Philip Johnson's exquisitely carved marble is surely easier to live with than the abrasively brutal concrete forms that Le Corbusier assembled with such consummate acrobatic skill and which still have such a disastrous influence on the main stream of Modern architecture.

Johnson, I thought, provided an often beautiful and nearly always pleasing antidote.

But he is a restless man, possessed by an "ever alert, questioning, unsentimental and well-stocked mind," as Calvin Tomkins put it in his brilliant New Yorker profile of Johnson.

So his search and perhaps the nature of his commissions - huge corporate towers - led him back to the glass box and Mies van der Rohe's "less is more."

In a sense he simplified the Seagram Building when he stretched the glass box into the sky with his IDS Investors Diversified Services) Building in Minneapolis, built in 1973.

What for me redeems the tedium of IDS is its glass-enclosed plaza, a sort of crystal palace, that is lovely and lively and a pleasant refuge from Minnesota winter winds.

Philip Johnson's most talked about work is Pennzoil Place in Houston, two glass towers - a sort of split Mies - that is carved into a skyscraping sculpture, looking a little as though Brancusi had had a hand in its design.

It is - and Philip Johnson will be the first to admit it - pure art almost entirely for art's sake. Johnson has quite consistently defended the proposition that client wishes, function and social purpose are poor excuses - crutches, he called them - for architecture.

A growing number of us are beginning to disagree. But I'll defend to the death Philip Johnson's right to give us abstract art. He does it better than almost anyone.