Julia Morgan, Hearst Castle Architect, Becomes First Woman to Win the AIA Gold Medal

Fifty-six years after her death in 1957, Julia Morgan has won the AIA Gold Medal. Though she’s not the first architect to posthumously take the American Institute of Architects’ highest honor (Thomas Jefferson won in 1993), Morgan makes the history books as the first female architect to win the prize since its foundation in 1907. It’s been a long time coming.

The first female graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris (circa 1902) and the first woman to obtain an architecture license in California, Morgan is remembered chiefly as the architect of the eclectic, baroque Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. The designer of over 700 buildings, including structures on the Berkeley campus, several YWCA buildings across northern California, and the Craftsman-style St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, Morgan cut an idiosyncratic figure in her own time — though her talent was on par with that of her best male contemporaries, she received much less in compensation and recognition. John Galen Howard, who employed Morgan in her youth, once told a colleague that Morgan was, “an excellent draftsman whom I have to pay almost nothing, as it is a woman.”

The iconic Morgan-designed pool at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California.

Morgan, though truly deserving of the recognition, is unlikely to have been lauded this year were it not for yet another female architect: Denise Scott Brown. The female partner at Venturi Scott Brown and Associates — and  leading theorist and practitioner of postmodernism alongside her husband and creative partner Robert Venturi — Scott Brown was at the center of a controversy about the role of women in architecture earlier this year. When the Pritzker Prize refused to honor a petition started by two Harvard GSD students asking to retroactively grant the architectural profession’s top award for work she completed with her husband — who won in 1991 for work they designed together — a flurry of agitation ensued. Nine former Pritzker winners signed the petition; a plethora of statistics and stories emerged, documenting systematic discrimination against women in architecture; the AIA changed its rules for the Gold Medal, making them more accommodating toward joint work and women. Now Julia Morgan finally has her prize, but what about living female architects (Scott Brown, for example, remains without a Pritzker)? Though they, sadly, will have to keep waiting, Morgan’s prize represents a progressive step in a more egalitarian direction.

— Anna Kats

Images courtesy of Wikipedia commons.