With a career spanning across 40 years with more than 800 buildings spread in California and Hawaii, Julia Morgan was the first female architect to receive the AIA Gold Medal. She was the only woman to graduate with a civil engineering degree from Berkeley in 1894. Before getting admitted into architecture, she studied architecture from her mentor Bernard Maybeck, urged her to continue her studies at École des Beaux-Arts. She was the first woman to be admitted to the architecture program at l’École Nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the first woman architect licensed in California.
“Architecture is a visual art, and the buildings speak for themselves.”
– Julia Morgan
It wasn’t a cakewalk when Julia expressed her desire to study architecture in Paris. The institute had previously never had a female student and Julia had to wait for two long years before finally getting admitted after passing an entrance exam.
The architect worked with her professor in Paris, John Galen Howard before launching her own firm in 1904. Her projects include residences, institutes, private clubs, churches, and commercial establishments.
She had designed Mills College bell tower and library in Oakland in California which survived the earthquake of 1906, thanks to her knowledge of then rare earthquake design and use of reinforced concrete. This led to her getting commissioned for projects like Hearst Castle, Berkeley Playhouse (formerly St. John’s Presbyterian Church), Asilomar Conference Center, and numerous campus buildings at UC Berkeley and Mills College amongst numerous other residential projects for both the elite and the middle class.
After WWI, William Randolph Hearst, a publishing magnate commissioned her to make a country house called Hearst Castle at his ranch San Simeon, California. Morgan was involved with the project for 28 years and designed it as one of the most lavish private residences with fine details like the sculptures, works of art, all mostly designed by herself.
“Drive is what she had, and the most spectacular will,” says Victoria Kastner, Hearst Castle’s official historian. “She was indomitable.”
“The brilliance of Julia Morgan is that the buildings feel natural and fitting with the environment”, states Lada Kocherovsky, the principal architect of Page & Turnbull who is now involved in the restoration works of Hearst Castle.
A representative of the Arts and Crafts Movement, her buildings also showed the use of California pottery for ornamentation. She was inclined to deformalizing the most formal places without any imposing staircases, etc. She loved detailing fireplaces and pools as could be seen in the Hearst Castle. She was known for designing outstanding buildings within a tight budget which made her appeal to the clients. She mostly worked with indigenous materials and emphasized a lot on details. It is evident in Chinese YWCA in San Francisco where she researched Chinese symbols and painted them in the coffered ceiling giving a very traditional touch to the building.
“Her story tells us not to look at her gender, but to look at her work,” architectural legend Frank Gehry wrote in a letter supporting the nomination for AIA Gold Medal. “Her projects are personal, distinctive, and were built in a lasting and sustainable manner.”
It can be concluded that she rightly said, “My buildings will be my legacy… they will speak for me long after I’m gone.”