On the occasion of Julia Morgan, FAIA Gold Medal Conferral
Sandhya Sood, AIA, has studied, conducted research and written extensively on Julia Morgan’s, FAIA, work with a focus on sustainability. As the sustainability expert, Sood’s work was included in the nomination materials presented to the AIA Gold Medal Selection Committee and contributed to the success of the nomination.
On the occasion of Julia Morgans 2014 AIA Gold Medal conferral which will take place this week at the AIA National Convention in Chicago, AIACC invited Sood to present a tribute to Morgan. She graciously accepted the invite with the following essay:
Julia Morgans true light is far more Californian than has often been portrayed. Morgan, Americas first eminent woman architect dedicated her career to the development of California in the first half of the 20th century, contributing to its glorious heyday.
Born in 1872 in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, Morgan graduated with a degree in engineering from UC Berkeley, where she met Bernard Maybeck, FAIA. An architect and mentor, Maybeck encouraged Morgan to set eyes on the renowned architecture school at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1898, after plowing through the gender bias of the academy, Morgan became the first woman to be admitted to the program. Back on home turf with architecture certificate in hand, Morgan furthered her scintillating achievements to be the first licensed woman architect of California.
In 1904, Morgan established her practice in the heart of San Francisco, producing working drawings, specifications, artistic renderings, massing studies and full size details from the helm of a bustling atelier. Her astounding output of more than 700 buildings of various types, mostly built in California, included academic, healthcare, residential, religious and institutional, (YWCAs) designed over a successful career of five decades.
Her civil engineering background, education in Paris and early experience as assistant supervising architect of the Greek Theatre (1903 with John Galen Howard) fueled her exploration of the aesthetic qualities and material properties of concrete. When reinforced, as in the El Campanil (Bell Tower) at Mills College in Oakland, it stood tall in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake when many buildings had collapsed and burnt. Clearly, her expertise as an architect combined with life-saving engineering skills was indispensable at a critical time in the history of California.
While some of her contemporaries were drawn to the exploration of built form and liberation of space, Morgan focused on climate responsive design, material conditions and spatial efficiency. In her mind, this approach could facilitate essential qualities that make buildings work, adapt and endure.
Even though Morgan cross-pollinated architectural styles, her regional sensibilities enabled her to integrate industrial and native materials to respond to the variations in site, program and climates of California. She sought to moderate climate to improve comfort by use and location of thick walls, openings, shading devices, building form and orientation to sun and wind, among other passive strategies. By incorporating passive design, Morgan created sustainable spaces that benefit human lives through wellness, good indoor environmental quality and adaptability to changes in use.
Asilomar’s YWCA conference center in Pacific Grove (1913-1928) was initiated by the YWCA with gifts from patrons including Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the famed philanthropist and with Julia Morgans selection as its architect. Morgans careful placement of sixteen buildings (eleven remain) on thirty acres of coastal topography cradles stabilized dunes while conserving the natural environment of the ocean front site. Reminiscent of a settlement with the circle as its symbolic center, the focal green facilitated camaraderie and community for the girls visiting the campus. Sinuous paths embrace the cultural landscape of this National Historic Landmark, leading to accommodations and facilities nestled in the woods.
Morgans contribution in propelling early Bay region architecture from the Arts and Crafts movement into a distinctive language is significant. At Asilomar, Morgans unique rendition displays her ingenious building techniques that combine the strength of industrial materials with the beauty and low embodied energy of indigenous materials. Quarried stone set in cement mortar juxtaposed with native wood shakes, rustic redwood boards and split tree logs (now wood panels) protects the structure of Merrill Hall from sand and salt-laden winds of the ocean. It is not surprising that Morgans buildings have been resilient to the ravages of adverse climatic conditions and natural disasters because of her responsible designs and durable material assemblies.
If we were to look at Morgans work with our contemporary lens of sustainability, it will be evident that early in her career, she espoused principles of sustainability.
The stunning diversity in style, clients and scale of Morgans projects can present complexities and contradictions, inspiring some critics to label her work as overtly ornate or just ordinary. However, it is Morgans ordinary that manifests itself as extraordinary in its timeless qualities. As far as the lavish mansion at San Simeon goes, it displays Morgans tremendous professionalism in satisfying the requirements of her client, the spirited media tycoon William Randolph Hearst for a challenging project with an inaccessible site and shifting program.
So many architects thwart their clients passions by an inability to sustain collaborative alliances. But Julia Morgan, by virtue of her sincere persona and impeccable professional service, endeavored to guide and fulfill her clients seemingly impossible dreams.
Needless to say, Morgans work improved the quality of lives of a vast spectrum of clients, including forward-thinking women, immigrants, benefactors, orphans, and the aged (even animals!). Because of her values of inclusivity, she did not turn away the frail or terminally ill, designing infirmaries with fresh-air therapy to ease their pain. Many sought out Julia Morgan, the accomplished architect with empathy, to be their agent of change.
Modest, quiet, unassuming women do not make history, they say. And now, as the first woman to receive the AIA Gold Medal Award, Morgan (1872-1957) has once again shattered a barrier, welcoming others of her kind to follow suit.
Let us honor Morgans golden legacy that shines through America and still breathes life into Californias communities, architectural heritage and built landscape.
Below, a slideshow for your viewing pleasure. Remember, this is just a glimpse of Morgans portfolio.