January 08: the first AIA Gold Medal

2012/01/08 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1907 the American Institute of Architects (AIA) presented its first Gold Medal to English architect Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930).

The Gold Medal was inaugurated at the time of the AIA’s fiftieth anniversary.  It was (and is) the highest honor that the organization can bestow on a single practitioner and is intended to honor his (or, only very recently, her) “lasting contributions” to the “theory and practice” of architecture.  Among all the possibilities of 1907, the choice of Webb (who is no doubt almost entirely forgotten among current card-carrying member of the AIA*) is very interesting, and instructive.

Consider his nationality.  Contemporary literature suggests that the AIA’s choice of a non-Yank was made, at least in part, to strengthen professional relationships across the pond, and as a token of gratitude for the RIBA’s already honoring of two Americans (Hunt and McKim) with their own medal.

But why this Brit, especially when the (somewhat, at least in some places) better-remembered Edwin Lutyens and Richard Norman Shaw (both of them eventually Medalists) were waiting in the wings?  Today, Webb is best known for his confident twentieth-century Classicism: the 1913 redesign of the east front of Kensington Palace (the side with the famous balcony) and the Admiralty Arch of 1912.  But these ruggedly Ordered buildings were still on the horizon in 1907; at that time, Webb was the designer of the Birmingham Law Courts (1887), a fantasy in Gothicish red terra cotta with more than a dash of Arts and Crafts influence.  He was also finalizing the exuberant addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum (the drawing above dates to ca. 1907) and had recently completed the Britannia Royal Naval College, both of which exist in that curious English threshold between the “Victorian” period and a later commitment to Classicism that is described as “Edwardian,” for lack of knowing what to call it otherwise (beware people who name their architectural styles after monarchs–it means their vocabularies have run dry).

Perhaps this explains the AIA’s choice: in 1907 Webb still appears to be finding his way, stumbling a bit, although in an elegant way (the image of Dean Martin comes to mind–swooning, but never losing a drop from his martini glass).  Perhaps Webb’s work reflected the sense of grasping at tradition and innovation which ran through the AIA at the time, as the little profession struggled to figure out what it really meant to be an American architect.

All of the major American professional publications carried news of the awards ceremony that took place in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, but none so charmingly as the Boston publication called The Brickbuilder.  Its May 1907 edition reflected on Webb’s January tour, when the esteemed architect

visited our principal cities and spoke most approvingly of what he found, treating our architecture, not as the promising work of a hopeful younger cousin, but as the serious, vigorous achievement of a race which is inheriting all the traditions which count for the most in European architecture, and is making them very rapidly into a vernacular which presses American aspirations.
Can you hear the collective sigh of relief?  The tone of, “maybe the cool kids will invite us to play in their yard?”  Clio can.
 *Happily, the Royal Academy of Arts has done better: witness the recent 2008  program, “The Architects Who Made London,” which includes Webb with the likes of  Richard Norman Shaw and Edwin Lutyens.  Not likely that the RIBA membership tuned in.
Image: Design for the entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (from this source)

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