Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Better Late Than Never, I Guess: The AIA Gold Medal Award

The AIA Gold Medal, the highest award of the American Institute of Architects, has been awarded posthumously to Julia Morgan for 2014.

Morgan is the first woman architect to receive this award from the AIA - an award that has been in existence since 1907.  It's taken 107 years for the AIA to award the Gold Medal to a woman architect.  Let me repeat that:  it's taken 107 years for the AIA to award the Gold Medal to a woman architect.

To be honest, as a woman architect and member of the AIA, this news is infuriating.  It typifies the elaborate hoops and extremely high expectations that are expected of women architects to receive even a fraction of the same kind of recognition as their male counterparts.  And lest we forget, this award is given to her 57 years after her death.

This is not to detract from Morgan's achievements - certainly she is deserving of the Gold Medal.  Her biography is full of noteworthy achievements, and her extensive work speaks for itself.  But it brings into stark relief the sexism of this profession that has long been in full force.

image by Architect Glasses - please do not use without credit.

The fact that the first woman architect winner of this award has been dead for over 50 years does not inspire much hope that the AIA will be proactive in recognizing living women architects.

I also want to draw attention to the posthumous Gold Medal winners.

image by Architect Glasses - please do not use without credit.

With the notable exception of Thomas Jefferson (and I would dearly like to hear why Jefferson suddenly was getting an AIA award 167 years after his death), all of these posthumous awards were within 7 years of the architect's death.  Certainly the death of a great architect can draw attention to past work and accomplishments in a more immediate fashion than a new commission or exhibition.  But that doesn't explain why the AIA chose Morgan now.  And while the Jefferson award may indicate that there is no real limit to how far back the AIA is willing to go for the Gold Medal, he is the notable exception.  With Jefferson on this list, I wonder why Sir Christopher Wren or Michelangelo is not.

Is this the AIA playing "catch-up"?  Perhaps we'll see Louise Bethune next.  She was certainly a worthy architect who merits some kind of recognition, particularly from the AIA as she was the first female fellow of that organization in 1889.  Or perhaps Eileen Gray, who had a profound impact on the Modern Movement.  But rather than seeing awards going to dead woman architects, I'd much rather see awards going to living ones. 

I nominate Denise Scott Brown, who is among the most influential architects of the 20th century through not only architecture and planning but also theoretical writing and teaching.  This may also go toward recompense for being snubbed (twice!) by the Pritzker Prize jury.

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