Julia Morgan Posthumously Awarded the 2014 AIA Gold Medal

Dec. 13, 2013 Ι AIArchitect 

The American Institute of Architects Board of Directors on Dec. 12 posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal to Julia Morgan, AIA, the early 20th-century architect whose copious output of quality work secured her position as the first great female American architect. 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.

Taking off the blinders

A pivotal figure in the history of American architecture and American women, Julia Morgan won a litany of firsts she used to establish a new precedent for greatness. A building technology expert that was professionally adopted by some of the most powerful post-Gilded age patrons imaginable, Morgan practiced for nearly 50 years, and designed over 700 buildings: houses, churches, hotels, commercial buildings, museums, almost every buildings type. The first women admitted to the prestigious architecture school at the Ecoles des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Morgan designed comfortably in a wide range of historic styles.

By the time of her death in 1957, she would see her Beaux-Arts background overshadowed by the rise of Modernism, but 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,” she 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. At Berkeley, she caught the eye of AIA Gold Medalist Bernard Maybeck, who taught there. He gave Morgan what he would give the best and brightest of any gender: A recommendation to apply for the Ecoles des Beaux-Arts, the most prominent architecture school of its day. But there were two problems: She was a foreigner, and subject to unstated, but strict quotas, and a woman. No female had ever been admitted.

She failed the first entrance exam, and her second exam was discounted for no other reason than her gender. But she was finally admitted after her third try, and completed the entire program 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 to 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 let anyone with such diminutive views of women get between her and a client again. In 1904, she became the first women licensed to practice architecture in California, and opened her own firm. When she joined the AIA in 1921, only six women had gone before her.

The first decade of the 20th century was a phenomenal time to be an architect is San Francisco, not in the least because a devastating earthquake leveled much of the city 1906. It was an even better time to be Julia Morgan, as her concrete Greek theater escaped the quake unscathed. It you 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 professional reputation skyrocketed, and word of her skill with reinforced concrete spread across California. She began to take advantage of the material’s groundbreaking plasticity and flexibility in imaginative, new ways, savoring opportunities to clamber through scaffolding at buildings sites to inspect the work.

Redwood and concrete

Morgan’s career had obvious design highpoints, but what stands out most is the encyclopedic array of architecture styles she used: Tudor and Georgian houses, Romanesque Revival churches, 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 honesty (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 give reading rooms the feeling of a venerable old loft. The presentation is timeless. Replace the stacks with minimalist furniture and flat screen TVs, and you could put it on 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, a love of 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.

Some of her most notable projects include:

St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, an excellent example of First Bay architecture. An intimately scaled church, its interior is entirely clad in redwood, including open cross-strut beams that create a sense of humble grace and wonderment.

Asilomar YWCA in Pacific Grove, Calif., this YWCA conference center (Morgan designed approximately 30 YWCAs) is perhaps the largest Arts and Crafts campus complex anywhere, according to Sara Holmes Boutelle’s book Julia Morgan Architect. Its palette of rich natural materials and fluid mix of indoor and outdoor spaces suits its pleasant Northern California climate.

The Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif., William Randolph Hearts’ seaside retreat, 165 rooms across 250,000 acres, all dripping with detailing that’s opulent bordering on delirious. The style is generally Spanish Colonial, but the estate seems to compress Morgan’s skill at operating in different design languages: Gothic, Neoclassical, as well as Spanish Colonial, all into one commission.

Made for her age

Early in her career, a reporter, completely baffled at the idea of a female architect, asked Morgan if she’d done the interior decorating for a commission. It was the last time she’d speak with the design media, preferring instead to let her work speak for itself. Morgan refused to promote her work publically in most all ways. She didn’t enter competitions, or join AIA committees.  She derided other self-conscious strivers as “talking architects,” according to Julia Morgan Architect. Morgan was mostly apolitical, so there is not an overwhelming record of how she saw herself in the context of a discriminatory society that repressed ambitious women like herself, but simply by taking advantage of the specific time and place she was born into, Morgan ripped open a door that had been shut. At the end of the 19thcentury, women had become veterans of organizing various social reform movements: temperance, the abolition of slavery, and of course, their own right to vote. The complex social institutions built from these movements (like the YWCA) grew and realized their power, and soon they needed physical infrastructure to house themselves, symbolizing their status and hard-fought social gains. And they would need someone, preferably a woman, to design these places. And 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 marriage or had children, and no heir kept her firm going after she retired in 1951. She died a recluse. By this time, Modernism had negatively politicized and polemicized nearly design decision made by architects ever throughout history, including hers. But true to her word, her work spoke for itself. Reaching across the decades, its reminds architects of the first time a woman seized greatness among their ranks, and thus architecture opened up its borders just a bit more to reflect the society it