2017 AIA Gold Medal to Paul R. Williams

John Hill
8. December 2016
LAX Theme Building (1961), designed by Paul R. Williams (Photo: "monkeytime | brachiator"/Flickr)

It is the second time in four years that the prestigious award is being given posthumously; in 2014 Julia Morgan was the recipient – the first woman AIA Gold Medal recipient. Coming one year after Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi were given the award (the first duo to win it), it seems that the AIA Gold Medal is being used to make up for the profession's long history of ignoring architects outside the white-male majority. Unfortunately the AIA did not choose to award a living African-American architect (Phil Freelon, for instance) with its 2017 medal, instead repeating what it did in 2014. Nevertheless, just as the 2014 award brought attention to Morgan's prolific career, the 2017 medal should do the same for Williams.

Paul R. Williams in 1951 (Photo: Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library, via paulrwilliamsproject.org)

Paul R. Williams had a portfolio of nearly 3,000 buildings during his five-decade career, as stated by the AIA in yesterday's announcement of the AIA Gold Medal. Born in Los Angeles in 1894, most of Williams's buildings were realized in Southern California, including numerous houses for Hollywood stars, such as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Lon Chaney, and Frank Sinatra. Williams was comfortable designing in all sorts of styles, including modernism. In this vein, his most well known building is the LAX Theme Building (top image), which he designed with William Pereira, Charles Luckman, and Welton Becket.

Paul Revere Williams Residence, Paul R. Willliams, 1952 (Photo: Michael J. Locke/Wikimedia Commons)

In regards to being a black architect, the AIA recounts: "Despite a high school teacher’s attempts to dissuade him from pursuing architecture for fear that he wouldn’t be able to pull clients from the predominantly white community while the black community would not sustain his practice, Williams persevered." The AIA continues: "Confident in his abilities, Williams garnered accolades in architectural competitions early in his career while developing tactics like rendering his drawings upside down so that his white clients could view his work from across the table rather than by sitting next to him."

Williams, who died in 1980, was the first black architect to become a member of the AIA and the first black member to become a fellow. At the AIA National Convention in Orlando, Florida, next year he will become the first African-American architect to receive the AIA Gold Medal.

Town and Country Center, A. Quincy Jones and Paul R. Williams, 1947 (Photo: The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Although the building housing Williams's archive was burned in the riots that ensued after the jury's verdict in the Rodney King case in 1992, the Memphis chapter of the AIA and the Art Museum of the University of Memphis started a collaboration ten years ago that resulted in the Paul R. Williams Project. The excellent website is one of the best places to learn about Williams and some of his thousands of projects. 

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