It’s been almost four decades since Paul Revere Williams, an architect whose designs deeply influenced the landscape of Los Angeles, died. Now, writes Patrick Lynch for ArchDaily, the architect has become the first African-American ever to win the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal, the highest annual honor of the group and one of the field’s most important awards.
The medal, whose past winners include Frank Gehry, Richard Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright, is given annually to people “whose work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.” A jury of eight judges selected Williams for the 2017 AIA award based on a career that spanned over five decades and that included nearly 3,000 buildings.
Williams’ work came to define Los Angeles, from his futuristic, spaceship-like Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport to Saks Fifth Avenue, the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Los Angeles County Courthouse. He also designed thousands of individual residences for stars like Lucille Ball, Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.
Known for his peppy, modern designs, Williams also broke barriers during his career. Not only was he the first black member of the AIA, but he was one of the nation’s first widely recognized black architects. That wasn’t easy, and the perpetual racism of his day required him to juggle, compromise and change in an attempt to practice his craft. “He taught himself to draw upside-down so white clients wouldn’t be uncomfortable sitting with him,” his niece told NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates. He also learned to design quickly to get a leg up over his white competitors, often promising designs in less than 24 hours.
Though the AIA has been giving its gold medal for a century, this is the first time it’s ever honored a black architect. As CityLab’s Kriston Capps points out, just two years ago, the AIA also gave out its first-ever gold medal—also posthumous—to a woman. That reluctance to honor architects who are not white men reflects a larger diversity problem within the field. There are only about 2,000 African-American architects in the United States, and both women and people of color report having a hard time advancing in their careers.
Williams himself struggled with some of the same issues during his storied career, and believed in the importance of representation. “The power of example is strong,” he wrote in 1937. “A few decades ago, Negroes had no ‘examples’ within their own race to spur them on. But now, seeing men and women of their own color bettering their condition so phenomenally, they realize that they—or their children—can do as much.” Perhaps the next AIA medal will go to a living black architect and Williams’ hopeful words will come full circle.