The Indicator: What the Julia Morgan AIA Gold Medal Says about Equality in Architecture

Interior of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, CA. Image © Mark Anthony Wilson

“Is the building really in charge of a woman architect?” I asked the foreman… The man read me a powerful sermon of just three short sentences, punctuated with the earnestness of a reform orator. “An architect’s an architect,” he said, “and you can count them all on the fingers of one hand. Now, this building is in charge of a real architect and her name happens to be , but it might as well be John Morgan.”

Journalist in 1906 upon learning of Julia Morgan winning a new commission. (Courtesy Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Robert E. Kennedy Library)

The recent announcement that Julia Morgan has posthumously received the 2014 Gold Medal, the ’s top honor, while positive and inspirational, raises some important questions concerning the recognition and advancement of women in the profession. She is the first woman, living or dead, to receive the honor in the award’s 106-year history. From 1907 to 2012, all recipients have been men.

Courtesy of Landmark Heritage Foundation

It seems Morgan was destined to be first. She was the first female graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1902) and the first woman to obtain an architecture license in California. She is known principally as architect of the extravagant and stunning Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California and the designer of over 700 buildings.

While the AIA looking back through its files and deciding to grant Ms. Morgan her posthumous Gold Medal does seem just and long overdue, it also raises the specter of a history of overlooking women architects. In correcting an historical oversight, it may make the living feel better about themselves and their historical critiques. However, it is, alas, too late for Ms. Morgan to appreciate.

So, why now? “Perhaps it was the right choice for the AIA to start their record back in time, and not in 2013, like they should have been doing all along,” says Arielle Assouline-Lichten, who spearheaded the Denise Scott Brown Pritzker petition along with Caroline James and Harvard’s Women in Design student organization. Denise Scott Brown, herself the focus of debate regarding the profession’s equity in recognizing women’s achievements, says, “The award changes the AIA’s path.”

Interestingly, and perhaps in an attempt to remain above the controversy and to silence the critics, the AIA is highlighting Ms. Morgan’s achievements without reference to gender, culture, or its own history. “The only thing we can state as fact is that Morgan’s significant body of work has had lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture – which is the reason she received the Gold Medal,” says Matt Tinder, spokesperson for the AIA.

Aerial view of San Simeon under construction. Image Courtesy of Courtesy Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

However, this decision does not exist in a cultural vacuum. And not everyone is satisfied with the AIA’s “happily-moving-forward-while-not-acknowledging-its-past” position. “The AIA should be commended,” says Assouline-Lichten, “However it does speak very poorly for our profession that awarding a non-living female architect 56 years after her death is considered progress.”

What does granting a posthumous award say about the present when there are so many brilliant living women at the forefront of the profession? Does it really take half a century to assess a mass of historical documentation before a woman can achieve Gold Medal status? Or perhaps, since she is the first woman to receive the award, it just made sense for the AIA to begin in the past and, from there, work its way towards the present. One wonders how many other deserving women architects are back in the dark recesses of history’s closet? And will they, too, finally receive recognition?

Her design for Wyntoon, one of William Randolph Hearst’s properties. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

Guy Horton is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring “The Indicator”, he is a frequent contributor to The Architect’s Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and The Huffington Post. He has also written for Architectural Record, GOOD Magazine, and Architect Magazine. You can hear Guy on the radio and podcast as guest host for the show DnA: Design & Architecture on 89.9 FM KCRW out of Los Angeles. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyHorton.

Sherin Wing is the writer of ArchDaily’s Architecture School Guides. She received her Ph.D. in the Humanities at UCLA and resides in Southern California. You can follow Sherin on Twitter (and send her tips) @SherinWing.

Cite: Guy Horton & Sherin Wing. "The Indicator: What the Julia Morgan AIA Gold Medal Says about Equality in Architecture" 20 Dec 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 21 Aug 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=460815>

2 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    I’d should check with you here. Which is not something I often do! I get pleasure from reading a submit that may make folks think. Also, thanks for permitting me to remark!

Share your thoughts