Morgan is the 70th AIA Gold Medalist
She joins the ranks of such visionaries as Thomas Jefferson (1993), Frank Lloyd Wright (1949), Louis Sullivan (1944), Le Corbusier (1961), Louis Kahn (1971), I.M. Pei (1979), Santiago Calatrava (2005), Renzo Piano (2008),) Steven Holl (2012), and Thom Mayne (2013).
In recognition of her legacy to architecture, her name will be chiseled into the granite Wall of Honor in the lobby of the AIA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The American Institute of Architects Board of Directors on Dec. 12 posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal to Julia Morgan, FAIA, the early 20th-century architect whose copious output of quality work secured her position as the first great female American architect. Morgan is the first woman to ever be given the AIA Gold Medal. By receiving the award, Morgan was elevated to the College of Fellows. (The AIA National Board voted unanimously to waive the eligibility rules, in this instance, that require active membership in the AIA to be elevated to Fellowship.) The last posthumous AIA Gold Medalist was Edward Larrabee Barnes, FAIA, in 2007. The AIA Gold Medal is the highest honor the AIA confers on an architect. It acknowledges an individual whose significant body of work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture. Morgan’s legacy will be honored at the AIA 2014 National Convention and Design Exposition in Chicago.
AIA President Mickey Jacob, FAIA, notified Karen McNeil, PhD, a historian and Julia Morgan expert that was a member of the steering committee that sponsored her nomination, by telephone immediately after the Board made its decision. “Fantastic! Thank you so much!” McNeil said. “You’ve made my day. I’ll tell the team; they’ll be thrilled.”
Taking off the blinders
A pivotal figure in the history of American architecture and American women, Julia Morgan accomplished a litany of firsts she used to establish a new precedent for greatness. A building technology expert who was professionally adopted by some of the most powerful post–Gilded Age patrons imaginable, Morgan practiced for nearly 50 years and designed more than 700 buildings of almost every type, including houses, churches, hotels, commercial buildings, and museums. The first woman admitted to the prestigious architecture school at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Morgan designed comfortably in a wide range of historic styles.
Although by the time of her death, in 1957, she would see her Beaux-Arts background overshadowed by the rise of Modernism, reappraisals of her work make it clear that her approach to building materials and construction was more forward-looking than initially thought. Recognition with the AIA Gold Medal is also an opportunity to reassess Morgan’s social significance, a fact not lost on Denise Scott Brown, who went without a Pritzker Prize in 1991 when her husband Robert Venturi, FAIA, was honored for the work both of them had done. “Her work mirrored the social and economic burgeoning of California and the changing roles of women,” Scott Brown wrote in a letter of recommendation. “Now that we are taking off our blinders, we can see Morgan’s greatness. Including her now will help the profession diversify its offerings to include greater richness and creativity of expression.”
Berkeley to Beaux-Arts
Born in 1872, Morgan grew up in Oakland, Calif., in an upper-middle-class family. Exceptionally bright from a young age, she was one of the first women to study civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, where she caught the eye of AIA Gold Medalist Bernard Maybeck, who taught there. Maybeck gave Morgan what he would give the best and brightest students of any gender: a recommendation to apply for the École des Beaux-Arts, the most prominent architecture school of its day. But there were two problems: She was a foreigner, and thus subject to unstated but strict quotas, and she was a woman. No female had ever been admitted.
She failed the first entrance exam; her second exam was discounted for no other reason than her gender. She was finally admitted after her third try and completed the entire program in 1902.
Back in Berkeley, Morgan went to work for John Galen Howard, designing buildings for her undergraduate alma mater. An early project was an open-air Classical Greek theater, the first such structure in the nation. This project brought her closer into the orbit of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, a university booster and mother of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Morgan directed the construction of the theater, its Classical detailing to be done in then–cutting-edge reinforced concrete. When the project was completed, Howard paid his young designer a pittance, admitting that she was a fantastic “draftsman” but that he “had to pay her almost nothing, because she was a woman.” With this, Morgan vowed to never again let anyone with such dismissive views of women get between her and a client. In 1904, she became the first women licensed to practice architecture in California and opened her own firm. She joined the AIA in 1921 as only the seventh female member.
In San Francisco, the first decade of the 20th century was a time and place consumed by rebuilding in the wake of the devastating earthquake that leveled much of the city in 1906. For those who survived the quake, there was much work to be done, which Morgan did from her parent’s carriage barn in Oakland after her first office was destroyed. Her concrete Greek theater escaped the quake unscathed, boosting her statewide reputation as an architect. She began to take advantage of the material’s groundbreaking plasticity and flexibility in imaginative new ways, savoring opportunities to clamber through scaffolding at building sites to inspect the work.
Redwood and concrete
While Morgan’s career had obvious design high points, what stands out most is the almost encyclopedic array of architectural styles she employed: Tudor and Georgian houses, Romanesque Revival churches, and Spanish Colonial country estates with an Islamic tinge. Her late-period Beaux-Arts education gave her the ability (and pre-Modernist permission) to design in these historicist styles, gathering up motifs and methods from all of Western architectural history to select the approach most appropriate for each unique site and context.
“She designed buildings to fit her clients, blending design strategy with structural articulation in a way that was expressive and contextual, leaving us a legacy of treasures that were as revered when she created them as they are cherished today,” wrote AIA Gold Medalist Michael Graves, FAIA, in a recommendation letter.
Whatever the style, Morgan’s work displayed the influence of the then-contemporary Arts and Crafts movement, celebrating simple materials presented honestly (but not without ornamentation), and artisanal handiwork. Some of her simpler projects exhibit this love of strong, rustic materials the best, like her Mills College library. It rhythmically uses thick redwood beams and trusses to make reading rooms feel like venerable old lofts. The presentation is timeless; replace the stacks with minimalist furniture and flat-screen TVs and it could adorn the cover of any design magazine as a contemporary boutique hotel event space. (But true to Morgan’s Beaux-Arts tradition, it was all based on a Henri Labrouste library built in 1850.) Buildings like this helped Morgan establish the First Bay Tradition of architecture, which combines proto-Modernist notions of material honesty, contemporary building techniques, California landscapes, and historic architecture motifs.
Beyond redwood, Morgan’s other great material affinity was for concrete, a material that would come into its own as the ultimate facilitator of Modern architecture during her lifetime, if not by her hand. She used its plasticity in the service of historicist detail as well as structure. Morgan sculpted it into Gothic arches, window tracery, and decorative columns, or clad more expressive materials onto it for the exterior of buildings. She was not at all a pattern-book Beaux-Arts architect. For example, she often broke up strictly orthogonal arraignments by organizing campuses informally, around feminizing ovular plans.
“Looking at her work, one can find her playing with symmetry asymmetrically, slipping forms vertically and horizontally, orienting her buildings for climate and daylight, and expressing structure in new ways, pointing the way to Modernism on the horizon,” wrote AIA Gold Medalist Frank Gehry, FAIA, in a recommendation letter.
Morgan was mostly apolitical, so there is no extensive record of how she saw herself in the context of a discriminatory society that repressed ambitious women like her. But by taking advantage of the specific time and place of her birth, Morgan ripped open a door that had been shut for others. At the end of the 19th century, women had become veterans of various social reform movements: temperance, the abolition of slavery, and their own right to vote. As complex social institutions (like the YWCA) evolved from these movements and realized their power, they would need physical infrastructure to symbolize their status and hard-fought social gains. And they would need someone—preferably a woman—to design these places. At that moment appeared a brilliant Beaux-Arts–educated architect—a woman, well-connected, meticulous, and fearless.
Morgan was made for her age, but it didn’t last. She never married or had children, and no heir kept her firm going after she retired in 1951. She died a recluse in 1957, a time when Modernism had negatively politicized and polemicized nearly every design decision made by architects throughout history, including hers. But, true to her word, her work spoke for itself. Reaching across the decades, it reminds architects of the first time a woman achieved greatness among their ranks, and thus architecture opened up its borders just a bit more to reflect the society it serves.