Julia Morgan Awarded the AIA’s Gold Medal 56 Years After Her Death

How late is too late? Julia Morgan, FAIA (1872-1957) posthumously awarded the AIA’s Gold Medal—56 years after her death.

What are we to make of the American Institute of Architects’ announcement last week that the 2014 AIA Gold Medal recipient would be awarded to Julia Morgan? (Yes, architectural historians and lovers of Citizen Kane, that Julia Morgan.) To characterize this as a posthumous award is something of an understatement, since the renowned architect of more than 700 buildings (including the Hearst Castle) died fifty-six years ago. Morgan, of course, is a hugely important historical figure and deserves every bit of recognition she gets, but for an organization that desperately wants to project an image of inclusiveness, this feels like a serious miscalculation.

Until the Morgan announcement, no female architect had ever been awarded the prestigious Gold Medal. A week later, the score has been righted, but the AIA still manages to come off as tone deaf. Their decision, though not technically unjustified, reeks of the same tepidness that marked the Pritzker’s handling of the Denise Scott Brown brouhaha earlier this year. If the AIA meant this to be the grand political statement I think they did—Scott Brown was even quoted in the AIA press release on Morgan—then it may have blown up in their face. The award felt less like the honor it is, or was, and more like a backhanded compliment from a socially awkward but well-meaning relative.

Again, this was largely a symbolic gesture, perhaps even a well-intentioned one intended to honor the historic contributions of women in the field. But judging from some of the scathing comments I read following the announcement, I’m not sure the award will have the intended effect on its desired demographic, i.e. young women architects, many of whom are not members of the AIA. The general consensus—“You couldn’t come up with a woman with a pulse?”—is as blunt as it is spot on. I don’t have access to a full list of AIA Fellows, but just off the top of my head I can think of a few worthy recipients: Anne Fougeron; Jeanne Gang; Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel, who shared a Firm of the Year award in 2007; even London-based Zaha Hadid could have been tapped for the honor. Surely, there was one practicing female architect worthy of this great (but perhaps anachronistic) award?

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