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Legacy of Paul R. Williams: First African-American Architect Awarded AIA Gold Medal

Why equity in architecture was one of 2017’s hottest topics at AIA

This is part three in a continuing series on equity in design. Click to read part two.

In her first public appearance since leaving the White House, Michelle Obama took the stage at the American Institute of Architects conference last month in Orlando, Fl. While the former first lady shared candid stories and discussed her new pursuits, she also highlighted challenges facing minorities including women and African-Americans in the field of architecture.

She told the packed crowd of architects, designers, and contractors, “You can’t be an architect if you don’t know that architects exist. That’s where all of you come in.”

The topic of “equity in design” was a recurring theme at AIA both before and after Michelle Obama’s keynote speech. Earlier in the day, AIA honored the legacy of the late Paul Revere Williams, an influential African-American architect whose career spanned five decades, with their 2017 Gold Medal. The award “honors an individual whose significant body of work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture,” according to AIA.

Despite adversity, Williams (1894-1980) earned a sterling reputation. He was orphaned at just four years old when his parents died of tuberculosis. A family friend raised the bright, young Williams, who was the only black child in his school. That family friend encouraged him to pursue his dreams, even when counselors told him not to go into architecture, allegedly advising that white clients wouldn’t hire him and black clients couldn’t afford him, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Paul R. Williams left his mark on the Beverly Hills Hotel which he helped renovate in 1949

Today, Paul R. Williams’ work can be seen at landmarks like Beverley Hills’ Saks Fifth Avenue, the Palm Springs Tennis Club, the space-age LAX Theme Building, and the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Still, Williams was bent on pursuing his passion, and his penchant for a variety of revival styles and distinct understanding of scale gained a following of admirers. Today, his work can be seen at landmarks like Beverley Hills’ Saks Fifth Avenue, the Palm Springs Tennis Club, the space-age LAX Theme Building, and the Beverly Hills Hotel, which he renovated in 1949. Since opening his practice in the early 1920s, the Los Angeleno’s aesthetic extended from smaller, more affordable houses to the private homes of the rich and famous like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Barron Hilton and Frank Sinatra.

His impactful style made its mark through his many contributions to architecture particularly in southern California, but it can also be seen in D.C. at Langston Terrace, one of the nation’s first federally funded public housing projects, which Williams designed with Hilyard Robinson. Altogether, eight of his works are on the National Register of Historic Places. Among them is Williams’ housing project, which the so-called “architects to the stars” built hoping to foster a sense of community for residents and improve the daily lives of the poor and working class.

Williams’ granddaughter, Karen Hudson, spoke about the thousands of buildings he was able to design. She acknowledged that he was the first African-American to become a member of AIA in 1923, as well as the first African-American AIA fellow in 1957. He’s also the first African-American architect to be awarded AIA’s Gold Medal.

Hudson reflected, “He would encourage all of you to mentor young architects” so more people of color and women can rise in the industry. “He never let obstacles stop him and it shouldn’t stop you,” she said. Her uplifting speech was met with a standing ovation and recognition of the work needed to better represent the diverse communities that architects serve.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. This is part three in a five-part series of Hunter Douglas Architectural’s coverage of Michelle Obama’s message at AIA and those of other speakers and thought leaders who are also working to crack the code behind equity in design. Join the discussion with @FluentinDesign.

Image Credit: Security Pacific National Bank Collection Portraits-Williams, Paul R/Los Angeles Public Library

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