Paul Revere Williams has been awarded the 2017 AIA Gold Medal, the Institute’s highest honor for an individual or pair of collaborators whose work has had a lasting influence on the state of architecture. The American Institute of Architects board of directors voted earlier today to posthumously award the medal to Williams, who died in 1980, in recognition of his extensive and impressive portfolio of nearly 3,000 buildings built over his 50-year, barrier-breaking career. William J. Bates, FAIA, who served as AIA vice president from 2015-16, wrote in his support of Williams’ nomination, according to the AIA: “Our profession desperately needs more architects like Paul Williams. His pioneering career has encouraged others to cross a chasm of historic biases. I can’t think of another architect whose work embodies the spirit of the Gold Medal better. His recognition demonstrates a significant shift in the equity for the profession and the Institute.”

Architect Paul Revere Williams in 1970, standing in front of a restored tudor-style mansion that he designed in Bel-Air in 1928.
Los Angeles Times Architect Paul Revere Williams in 1970, standing in front of a restored tudor-style mansion that he designed in Bel-Air in 1928.

Williams was born in Los Angeles in 1894. He studied architecture at the University of Southern California's School of Engineering, persevering despite the many who tried to dissuade him for fear that he would not be able to sustain a practice in a predominantly white community in a deeply segregated time. He opened his practice in 1923 in a booming residential market in Southern California, and his house designs ran the gamut from small houses for first-time home buyers to grand revivals for more affluent customers. His client list grew to include celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Barron Hilton—all of whom commissioned lavish private residences.

courtesy Dan Gregory

While his residential work tended toward the traditional, as the market required, his commercial and institutional work greatly pushed forward the burgeoning style of Southern California Modernism. Works such as the Palm Springs Tennis Center (1946) designed with A. Quincy Jones, the LAX Theme Building (1961), and the renovation of the Beverly Hills Hotel (1949), re-crafted the visual identity of the region. Everywhere Williams built, he left a lasting impression on the cityscape he touched. Eight of his built works have been named to the National Register of Historic Places. His work and impact on the industry are chronicled in the Paul R. Williams Project, an effort based out of the University of Memphis.

Paul Revere Williams in front of his Theme Building at LAX, which was completed in 1961, photographed by Julius Schulman
Julius Shulman Photographic Archive, Research Library, The Getty Research Institute Paul Revere Williams in front of his Theme Building at LAX, which was completed in 1961, photographed by Julius Schulman

Williams was a trailblazer for diversity in the profession. In 1921, he became the first African-American architect to be certified west of the Mississippi. He was also the first African-American architect to become a member of the AIA, the first to be inducted into the AIA’s College of Fellows, and, with this award, the first to receive the AIA Gold Medal.

According to the AIA, Phil Freelon, FAIA, of Perkins+Will presented to the board of directors on behalf of Williams, saying: “This is a moment in our Institute’s history that is so important to recognize and acknowledge the work of a champion. It’s been many decades but Paul Williams is finally being recognized for the brilliant work he did over many years.”

The 2017 Gold Medal jury: chair Stephen Maher, AIA, of Ritter Maher Architects in Baton Rouge, La.; Rena Klein, FAIA, of RM Klein Consulting in Albuquerque, N.M.; Philip Laird, AIA, of Architectural Resources Cambridge in Boston; Thomas Luebke, FAIA, the secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C.; Cesar Pelli, FAIA, of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects in New Haven, Conn.; Jonathan Penndorf, AIA, of the Washington, D.C., office of Perkins+Will; Pamela Sams, AIA, of the Washington, D.C., office of Gensler; and Jennifer A. Yoos, FAIA, of Minneapolis-based VJAA.

The AIA Gold Medal will be conferred at the 2017 AIA Convention in Orlando in April, where Williams will join the ranks of previous AIA Gold Medal recipients, including Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown (2016, who were the first pair to win the medal concurrently); Moshe Safdie, FAIA (2015); Julia Morgan (2014, who was the first woman to receive the honor), Thom Mayne, FAIA (2013), Steven Holl, FAIA (2012), Fumihiko Maki, Hon. FAIA (2011), and Peter Bohlin, FAIA (2010), among others.

Read ARCHITECT’s coverage of the 2017 AIA Honor Awards.