The good news is that the AIA has, for the first time ever, awarded its Gold Medal, the profession’s highest honor, to a woman: Julia Morgan (1872-1957). While other Gold Medals have been handed out posthumously, they’re customarily bestowed much closer to the architect’s demise. Samuel Mockbee, for example, died in 2001 and was awarded the Gold Medal in 2004. Eero Saarinen, who died in 1961, was given the award in 1962. Only our nation’s founding aesthete, Thomas Jefferson, had to wait longer for recognition from the AIA. He died in 1826 and was not honored for his architectural achievements until 1993.
Clearly, Morgan, who was the first woman to attend the Ecoles de Beaux Arts (she graduated in 1902) and who is best remembered as the architect of that eclectic behemoth, the Hearst Castle, was overdue for recognition. It’s always a little jarring to realize that she’s almost an exact contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Wright's Ennis House, for example, and the Hearst Castle are geographically and chronologically close but otherwise light years apart.
While Wright still resides more-or-less in the present, Morgan has slipped into the past. Arguably, her fade from memory is less about her gender and about the fact that, stylistically speaking, she was very much an architect of her own time. Many of her best buildings, such as the former St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley and the Asilomar YWCA, are in the Arts and Crafts Style that came to define California architecture in the early 20th century. She was enormously successful and designed some 700 buildings. “Most of them are still standing,” says Julia Donoho, the AIA board member who nominated Morgan for the Gold Medal. (A jury selects three final candidates from all the nominations, with the winner chosen by the board.) Her buildings live on in part because Morgan—little known fact—was a pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete, a material that turned out to be remarkably resilient in earthquakes. “Julia Morgan was a true superstar,” says Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, FAIA, who presented the nomination to the AIA’s board. “Julia received many glamorous commissions, but she continued to devote a large part of her talent to empowering the poor and vulnerable. This and many of the other themes in her work and practice make her a powerfully relevant model for contemporary architects.”
Still, the timing of the prize may lead some critics to suggest that it has more to do with an architect who is still among the living: Denise Scott Brown, FAIA. Because there was such an uproar in June over the Pritzker Architecture Prize committee’s refusal to retroactively include Scott Brown in the award that her husband and collaborator, Robert Venturi, FAIA, won back in 1991, it may appear that the AIA felt compelled to honor a woman. Not so, says Donoho, who practices architectural law in Northern California. She says she began her search for “the first women to win the Gold Medal” a year ago, when she first joined the board. Donoho says she nominated Morgan because she felt that the organization needed to go back and recognize Gold Medal quality women who “were overlooked.”
The AIA is to be commended for finally awarding its Gold Medal to a woman. Hopefully it’s the first step towards honoring the significant design contributions women have made to the field. (The recent death of Nathalie De Blois of SOM, who is only occasionally cited for her work with Gordon Bunshaft on Modernist icons like the Pepsi-Cola headquarters or Lever House, serves as a reminder of all the work by women designers that history has credited to men.) The fact that AIA has begun the work of recognizing the women it has overlooked in the past suggests that sometime soon, a contemporary female architect who is still alive and practicing will be similarly honored.