Some thoughts on the Julia Morgan AIA Gold Medal

My first quick reaction on hearing that Julia Morgan (1872-1957) was awarded the AIA Gold Medal yesterday? Terrific! It will bring some well-deserved recognition to a very important and very accomplished architect who is generally forgotten.

In fact, I've 'forgotten' her myself, unfortunately, in my teaching. When I used to have an entire semester to cover the 20th century, she merited a full lecture. Currently (because of the constrained curriculum of an engineering program) I must cover the entire history of architecture in a semester and she's been crowded out, along with a multitude of other small tragedies.

Asilomar Conference Center, Julia Morgan, 1913

Asilomar Conference Center, Julia Morgan, 1913

Having lived in Berkeley and Pasadena, I knew her work and her importance pretty well. Her Hearst Gymnasium and Hearst Mining Building were (and are) two of the jewels of the campus at Berkeley. I remember studying the Mining Building and finding it exceptionally well-composed as a teenager, long before my architectural education. I also remember hanging out at a Julia Morgan house on Derby Street in Berkeley, a student-rental at that time, and I recall that everyone knew the name 'Julia Morgan', recognized the house was beautiful, quirky, and important, and took care of it. I vaguely recall we had to remove our shoes.

I've been to Hearst Castle a few times and it is always simply unbelievable. Like visiting some remote European principality from another time. My old lecture was focused on that site, with a dash of the Asilomar building. In my research for that lecture, I really came to respect her as a working professional. In the profusion of activity at San Simeon, I think it might sometimes be overlooked what a difficult job Julia Morgan had. William Randolph Hearst constantly changed his mind and expanded the scope of the project. As construction proceeded, he shipped back pieces of buildings that she needed to incorporate into the design on-the-fly. She needed to manage all of this while commuting from San Francisco and working on dozens of other projects. Obviously she succeeded tremendously because San Simeon is marvelously resolved at every scale, and the demanding client hired her again and again.

I've never thought about it until now, but today I began wonder why I like Morgan's work so much, given that she practiced eclecticism, which usually displeases my own modernist sensibility. First thought: she had some strong affiliations with the Arts & Crafts movement, as shown by the Asilomar building and the Derby street house (and others, including maybe even the Refectory at Hearst Castle). Secondly, design quality transcends everything else, and her buildings have plenty of that.

When I noticed some hand-wringing online yesterday about the award, I immediately thought it was misplaced. Why politicize the issue? Let's assume it's an authentic decision and that Julia Morgan will have a well-deserved moment in the spotlight. Books will sell. People like me will find a place for her (again) in history courses.

On further reflection, though, I do understand the raising of a critical eyebrow. Gender biases favoring men, both in contemporary architecture and architectural history, are real and profound. Decisions that too-obviously seek to soothe over a deep historical wound can appear weak, arbitrary and gestural. Has Julia Morgan's memory become a sacrificial pawn in architecture's larger game of gender politics? It's a question worth discussing.

Also pertinent: "Unforgetting Women"