The 2017 AIA Gold Medal was posthumously awarded to Paul Revere Williams, FAIA. Williams is the first African American architect to receive the AIA’s highest individual honor. In support of his nomination in late 2016, Phil Freelon presented Williams’ portfolio and story to the AIA Board of Directors. Below, we share his speech honoring a personal hero. All images courtesy of Karen Hudson, author of Paul R Williams, Architect and Paul R. Williams: Classic Hollywood Style.
Good afternoon. My name is Phil Freelon and it is my honor and privilege to present the case for bestowing upon Paul Revere Williams, FAIA, the 2017 AIA Gold Medal—posthumously.
There are several precedents for honoring our most deserving members with the Gold Medal after their passing. This is a way for the Institute to illuminate the careers of exemplar individuals who, because of social or political barriers, were not considered during their lives. For example, Julia Morgan was recognized 57 years after her death. This award would be 37 years after Mr. Williams passing, and the ninth posthumous Gold Medal award.
It is such an honor to advance this particular candidate for consideration, especially during this time in our nations’ history. I hope to convince you that Paul Revere Williams is both qualified and deserving of this recognition.
First, I will touch on the requisite ‘program criteria’ established by the Institute to help evaluate the Gold Medal candidates. Any of the five criteria could be the basis for giving the award, and I believe that a strong case can be made for Williams in all five areas.
I will take the final few minutes of my allotted time to tell the story of Paul Williams’ personal and professional journey and put into historical context the accomplishments and impact of this remarkable architect.
The first of the AIA’s program criteria asks that the candidate’s work demonstrate “great depth, having a cumulative effect on the profession of architecture.”
To this point, please note that Mr. Williams delivered more than 2,000 projects during the course of his career which spanned five decades. These include public projects and many residences.
The list of institutions holding his archives is extensive: The Getty Research Institute Library, the California Historical Society, the Library of Congress and the City of Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, just to name a few.
Of Mr. Williams’ public projects, the LA County Courthouse is one of the most prominent.
Of the many projects in Mr. Williams’ portfolio, residences represent the building type for which he is best known. A good number of these were designed for Hollywood stars, including the home of Lucile Ball and Desi Arnez in 1954 after completing his own residence in 1952.
The second criterion requires that the work show evidence of “great breadth, having influenced the direction or profession of architecture.” Through his writing and publications, project diversity and leadership in the field, Mr. Williams certainly shows an impressive breadth of influence.
The two books on home design he authored in 1945 and 1946 are excellent examples of how Mr. Williams influenced the state of the industry in the mid 40s – and reaching six decades forward as they were recently republished in 2006!
Panels from New Homes for Today show his beautiful drawing hand and graphic clarity of his design concepts.
Projects such as the Palm Springs Tennis center of 1946 illustrate the diversity of Williams work. Likewise for the Guardian Angel Cathedral in Las Vegas.
Mr. Williams was also active in the Black business community. Here, he is shown with the client group from Golden State Mutual Insurance, for whom he designed a corporate headquarters.
The third criterion speaks to how the candidate “addressed the future of architecture while honoring its tradition.” There is certainly a respect for tradition here while demonstrating forward-thinking design and an evolving aesthetic.
Williams’ eight projects listed on the National Register of Historic Places speak volumes about his respect for tradition. His renovation of the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1949 revitalized the original 1912 structure while creating the new iconic image that defined this landmark through the ensuing decades.
Likewise for the 1952 remodel of the El Mirador Hotel which provided a distinctly modern lift to this classic building.
Perhaps the best example of how Williams addressed the future of design can be seen in his La Concha Motel in Las Vegas, built in 1961.
Denise Scott Brown, our 2016 Gold Medal Recipient, writes:
The poetry of the parabolas, representing hedonism and structural purity, could lead people like us in our search for everyday architecture. That’s why I photographed it so frequently.
A testament to the enduring appeal of this design is the fact that 55 years later, the lobby building is still attracting visitors – repurposed as the Neon Museum.
The fourth criterion asks how the candidate “transcended or united specific areas of expertise.” Monographs that chronicle the work are evidence of Williams’ expertise and testimonials underscore the transcendent nature of his career.
Two monographs of his work have been published, both by Rizzoli. A documentary film on Williams’ life and career is currently in the works.
Karen Hudson, Williams’ biographer, writes:
His obstacles were great, but nothing could extinguish his brilliance. Unable to participate in the “old boys” network that boosted the careers of most architects of the day, he found ways to distinguish himself and garner clients.”
Kelly Wearstler – in the foreword to Paul R. Williams Classic Hollywood Style notes:
One of the most celebrated architects of his generation, among fellow architects as well as the Hollywood elite, … Williams was deeply involved in the black community in Los Angeles and in black affairs nationally. Williams moved among many worlds, and left his signature in the most glamorous and exclusive enclaves.
Paul Williams was an inspiration to many. Personally, he is a hero of mine. Knowing that he was able accomplish all that I have described here today – in the socio-political context of the US in the 1940s through the 80s – makes one believe that anything is possible in this profession. He stood as an example and role model for countless young people. Above all, he was a gentleman in every sense of the word.
Finally, the fifth criterion asks if the candidate has “become widely known—by architects, designers, educators, and the public—for the quality of their work.”
To this I submit that Paul Revere Williams was a pioneer, innovator and leader who was widely recognized. He was also a willing collaborator.
In 1921 he became the first African American registered architect west of the Mississippi.
In 1923 he was the first Black architect to become a member of the AIA.
And in 1957 he was the first African American elevated to our College of Fellows.
There has been much written about Paul Williams and his work.
Here Williams is pictured with some of his clients and colleagues – including two Franks – Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Sinatra.
Possibly his most prominent single design is that of the LAX Theme Building completed in 1961.
Frank Gehry, our 1999 Gold Medal recipient writes:
In 1961, when I was just starting my career, Williams was designing the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport with William Pereira. He was known for setting the style for Hollywood in residential, commercial and government buildings. His impressive career was prolific and left a legacy that remains strong.
He represents the unquestioned gold standard not only for architects of color, but all those who have experienced and admire his work.
In his memoir I Am a Negro, Paul Williams reflects on his life and career:
I came to realize that I was being condemned, not by lack of ability, but by my color. I passed through successive stages of bewilderment, inarticulate protest, resentment, and, finally, reconciliation to the status of my race.
Eventually, however, as I grew older and thought more clearly, I found in my condition an incentive to personal accomplishment, and inspiring challenge. Without having the wish to “show them,” I developed a fierce desire to “show myself.
I wanted to vindicate every ability I had.
I wanted to acquire new abilities.
I wanted to prove that I, AS AN INDIVIDUAL, deserved a place in the world.
Coming into the new year of 2017, as a 63 year-old and child of the 1960s and 70s, I am disappointed that we as a country are still talking about the first Black person to achieve a particular distinction and the first African American to accomplish another significant goal; think about the first Black Major League baseball player (1947), Astronaut (1961), US Senator – post reconstruction (1966), Governor (1990), and United States President (2008).
Considering the AIA’s decades long struggle with diversity and inclusion, we can move our profession closer to the broad based participation that we know will make us stronger and ultimately improve the quality of our built environment.
I am thrilled at the possibility of this award not only for the Williams family and those who would be inspired by this achievement – but also for the potential upside this recognition would bring to the Institute. I can’t tell you how many times an AIA colleague has commiserated with me about the lack of diversity in our ranks. Well my friends, today we can do something about this dilemma.
Here we stand with an opportunity to take a bold step that would send an unequivocal message to our membership and to the whole world.
I know that the ‘program criteria’ doesn’t include courage. And perseverance is not a requirement for the Gold Medal. There is no mention of resilience as an attribute that the AIA values. And resourcefulness in the face of adversity is not a distinguishing characteristic we typically seek out in our profession. However, these traits – along with the customary Gold Medal criteria – set Paul Revere Williams above and apart from the other worthy candidates this year.
In conclusion, as you move toward your final deliberations and the selection of the 2017 American Institute of Architects Gold Medal winner, I leave you with this final thought, and I quote:
We are going to have to have people as committed to doing the right thing, to inclusiveness, as we have in the past to exclusiveness.
Those words were offered to our membership by Whitney M. Young, Jr. in his Keynote address at the 1968 AIA Convention in Portland.
Again, thank you for this opportunity.