The 2014 Gold Medal posthumously awarded to Julia Morgan by the AIA is a good move by the professional organization. It shows the AIA’s commitment to making sure women have a voice and a place in the profession. The selection received mixed reviews, but by giving the Medal to a woman who is much more deserving than some living architects, the AIA avoids the appearance of awarding political correctness. It also gives women architects a role model of considerable skill and stature.

Hearst Castle
Victoria Garagliano/Hearst Castle/California State Parks Hearst Castle

Beyond the question of whether Morgan deserved such an award more than some other deceased architects the AIA did not see fit to single out during their lifetime, there is the question of what this Gold Medal actually commends. Morgan produced beautiful buildings and places, but she was not exactly innovative. Her strength was the force and elaboration with which she carried out her eclecticism. She also had an influence mainly through her design of one compound, the Hearst Castle on California’s coast. Though I think her other retreat for William Randolph Hearst, “Wyntoon” in the woods further north, was much more interesting, Hearst Castle became a model of robber baron exuberance and is still visited and photographed by millions.

Wikimedia Commons

A friend of mine in San Francisco, Charles Dilworth, FAIA, lives in a Julia Morgan-designed house, and I was able to experience her rambling aesthetics firsthand last week. The architect loves to slide from one composition and one space into another. Her ability to juxtapose both spatial decorative elements was remarkable. What this modest house does not have are the grand gestures of which, given a big enough budget, she was also capable—such as the temple front-faced swimming pool at Hearst Castle. What I love about her work, however, are the edges and the elisions, the ways in which she melds and molds historical styles into something all her own. In particular, her blending of neoclassical, shingle style, and Spanish colonial styles was unmatched, and brought out the ordering principles in the first, the earthy grandeur in the second, and a solidity enlivened by moments of decoration in the third.

What the AIA seems to be pointing out, whether consciously or not, is that they think that the skill of using historical styles and their elements is as important as coming up with new forms or spatial solutions. Morgan’s late victory is one of style over substance, in other words, even if that style includes a way in which rooms combine or flow.

I know that to point this out might open me up to the criticism that I am calling her work feminine and dismissing it as such. In fact, I think it is fully fitting for Morgan to receive the Gold Medal, considering how the AIA defines architecture, and I only wonder whether it validates not so much the work of women, as of architects such as Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, or even David Schwarz, AIA. That is the problem with picking such awardees: It does not matter what their merits might be, they receive the distinctions for reasons that inevitably go beyond those qualities. The act of awarding has implications that go in directions that often are not what we might expect. Let us in this case just be glad that a very good architect at long last has received something she certainly deserved.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.