Why can't architecture manage to identify living women and architects of color for their most prestigious award?
The American Institute of Architects just awarded its highest honor to a black architect for the first time ever—posthumously.
Paul Revere Williams, a Los Angeles–based designer who died in 1980, won the Gold Medal for his extensive body of work in Southern California and beyond. His honor comes two years after the AIA awarded its Gold Medal in 2014 to a woman for the first time ever—posthumously.
Architecture has a diversity problem. That’s long been the case. But the AIA specifically has an awards problem.
Williams is a deserving choice, no question. Over the course of more than 50 years, he designed nearly 3,000 buildings. The Los Angeles–born architect helped to define the Googie style by building several cherished examples, including the LAX Theme Building and La Concha Motel (now the Neon Museum’s visitors center). Williams designed homes for the rich and famous, among them Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, and Barron Hilton. Many of the homes and buildings that distinguish Los Angeles from the rest of California—from the rest of the world—bear his fingerprints. As a member of the first Los Angeles City Planning Commission, Williams literally built his city.
Julia Morgan was also a perfect choice for the Gold Medal. She is a fitting counterpart to Williams in many ways: another Californian born in the 19th century, although she made her mark in San Francisco. Like Williams, she was a prolific designer, building on average 15 projects per year over the first half of the 20th century. Christopher Hawthorne, writing for Architect magazine (my alma mater), called her practice “metronomic.”
“Typically we consider that sort of steadiness as being at odds with singular genius, which the clichés have led us to believe comes in bursts of unpredictable inspiration,” Hawthorne writes.
Morgan and Williams should have won their Gold Medals decades ago—before her death in 1957 and his death in 1980. It is about time that the AIA recognized their enormous contributions to American architecture, along with the problem on their hands. Of the more than 80 Gold Medal awards the organization has bestowed since 1907, it has never settled on a practicing woman or African American in architecture.
The organization’s institutional efforts to make up for lost time only underscore the problems in the field. In 2015, the AIA—working in tandem with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, the National Organization of Minority Architects, and the American Institute of Architecture Students—conducted a broad industry survey on diversity. After polling 7,500 practitioners, the AIA drew a number of conclusions: Women were less satisfied in the industry than men, and minorities were underrepresented across the board.
The Gold Medal is a design award, meaning that formalist accomplishments matter much more than context, equity, or any social concerns. The index of Gold Medal alumni includes enough luminaries to reconstruct a history of modern architecture, from Charles McKim and Henry Bacon to César Pelli and Renzo Piano. None of these names doesn’t belong.
Yet few of them broke barriers. Morgan and Williams did. Their resumes are filled with “firsts”: the first black Fellow of the AIA, the first woman licensed to practice architecture in California, and so on. Making too much of these achievements is a mistake, since women and minorities still face the same difficulties in practicing architecture today.
Bestowing awards on the basis of formal design accomplishments alone is a stance that continues to reward white men and disregard women and architects of color. Awards for design reward privilege—not just privilege, but privilege for sure. Women and minorities, who have not historically benefited from the same access to education, professional advancement, clientele, or opportunities, have not produced the same level of design at the same velocity as their white male counterparts. And women architects and architects of color do not have that same degree of access still.
Architecture needs retooling. Consider the letter drafted by National Organization of Minority Architects to Robert Ivy, the AIA’s CEO, after he issued a cheery letter to President-elect Donald Trump congratulating him on his election. The African American Student Union of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design have complained that there are no courses at the university that consider race and justice as elements of design. (My colleague Brentin Mock came up with a syllabus for just such a course.) Denise Scott Brown, an architect who, with her design partner and husband Robert Venturi, won last year’s Gold Medal award, was excluded from the Pritzker Architecture Prize that Venturi won in 1991 for the work of Venturi Scott Brown Architects—prompting Harvard’s Women in Design group to launch a national Design for Equality organization.
Architecture’s big prizes needed the same big rethink as a result. Were the Gold Medal to be awarded for architecture that accomplishes or demonstrates social equity at some level—any level—most of the names on that august index would fall off. If the AIA cannot identify and celebrate living, breathing women and architects of color with its most prestigious award, how much is that award even worth?