From Mayne to Morgan

December 16, 2013

In case no one has noticed, the American Institute of Architects seems to have made a dramatic turn during the past year with at least one decision. For the very first time the Institute decided to award its coveted Gold Medal to a woman, and not just any woman. Julia Morgan, who practiced a century ago, received the medal posthumously (only the second person so honored). Why did this happen in 2013 and not 2012, or 1995, or 1960? Last year, after all, the recipient was Thom Mayne, that most macho of avant garde sycophants.

Well, one can certainly speculate on what made the jury make such a radical turn. First, the AIA has been operating as if nothing has changed in a male-dominated, good old boy system for decades now, and recognizing the role of female architects was long overdue. It could well have given the award to a living architect like Denise Scott Brown, Merill Elam or Susana Torre. Julia Morgan’s award, however, sent a different kind of signal.

By honoring Morgan, the AIA showed that women have played a historic role in the evolution of American architecture, not just one that began with the feminist movement in the 1970s. While clearly a minority in 1900, women were designing key buildings for a wide variety of clients, just as were African American architects a few decades later. The fact that our professional organization could not recognize their achievements is an indictment of its leaders over the past half-century or more.

Happily, we have begun a new chapter in AIA history in 2013. Let us hope that our next Gold Medalist represents an equally important, and neglected, part of this richly talented and diverse profession.

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