The American Institute of Architects has announced the winner of its 2014 AIA Gold Medal, and for the first time in over a century, the recipient will be a woman: Julia Morgan. The AIA Gold Medal, voted on annually, is considered to be the profession’s highest honor that an individual can receive. It just so happens that Morgan died in 1957, but you know what they say: better late than never!
Female architects have been very much in the news lately — mainly for the discrimination they still face — but as a blog post at the Architectural Record explains, Morgan’s win wasn’t just timed to the zeitgeist; it came about through “an orchestrated campaign” led by a number of prominent female architects and politicians. California Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote to the committee, “Julia Morgan is unquestionably among the greatest American architects of all time and a true California gem.”
So, for those unfamiliar with her (including myself), just who was Julia Morgan? Reading her write-up on AIA is like discovering a matriarch who was left out of the Bible. Morgan was the first woman to attend the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, “the most prominent architecture school of its day,” after taking the entrance exam three times (the second one was rejected solely on the basis of gender). She was the first woman licensed to practice architecture in California (in 1904), and the seventh woman to join the AIA (in 1921). She designed more than 700 buildings, including the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, and was a pioneer in using reinforced concrete.
Here’s a fun anecdote: after completing her education at the École des Beaux-Arts, she went to work designing buildings for John Galen Howard. In his employ, she designed and directed construction of the first open-air classical Greek theater in the country — which went on to withstand the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906. When it was finished, Howard told her she was an excellent “‘draftsman’ but that he ‘had to pay her almost nothing, because she was a woman.’” Sigh.
To be fair, Karrie Jacobs at Architect magazine speculates that “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.” Jacobs adds, “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.”
So maybe she wasn’t the most avant-garde; clearly she’s still deserving. But not everyone is happy that the AIA chose to begin rectification of its gender problem with a dead woman:
Can't say Julia Morgan doesn't deserve AIA Gold Medal. But hard not to feel it's a little odd that the first woman they give it to is dead.
— Paul Goldberger (@paulgoldberger) December 14, 2013
First AIA gold medal to a female architect! Okay, so she's been dead for 50 yrs, but nobody's perfect.
— Justin Davidson (@JDavidsonNYC) December 12, 2013
A woman won the Gold Medal in architecture. Why wasn't it Denise Scott Brown? http://t.co/zExYxGnzsJ
— Kriston Capps (@kristoncapps) December 12, 2013
They do (is it notable that they’re all men?) have a point, but also, we’ve got to start somewhere. Although the decision may be viewed as the AIA board playing it safe, the symbolism is important — part of the how we encourage girls and women in the present is by illuminating a forgotten past of female pioneers.
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!