The career of Paul Revere Williams was defined by glitz, glam, and a remarkable triumph over adversity that helped pave the way for countless architects to follow. Now, Williams and his work will at long last celebrated in a new feature-length documentary film, Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story, co-produced by PBS SoCal and released in time for Black History Month. Born in Los Angeles in 1894, Williams blazed previously impassible trails as both the first certified African American architect to practice west of the Mississippi, as well as the first African American architect to be admitted as a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Williams, whose wildly prolific career spanned over 50 years, is perhaps even more famous for his seemingly endless output of buildings across a range of styles and types: Office buildings, churches, schools, hotels, restaurants, public housing projects, municipal buildings, and enough private homes for Hollywood luminaries—Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Cary Grant, and Tyrone Power among them—to fill Beachwood Canyon. And while Williams is best-known work is predominately located in and around L.A., other notable Williams-designed buildings can be found further afield. They include the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee; the La Concha Motel, now part of the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, and the landmark Hotel Nutibara in Medellín, Colombia. Williams’ collaboration on the Googie-style showstopper at Los Angeles International Airport, the 1961 Theme Building, appears to be directly imported from even further afield… a place called outer space. The Theme Building is not only one of Williams’ most well-known projects but an iconic structure in L.A. for both its location and prominent superstructure. Debuting earlier this month on PBS SoCal, the Courtney B. Vance-narrated documentary, which also includes interviews with Williams’ grandchildren, friends, and architectural historians, can now be viewed on PBS channels nationwide and streamed online here.
Posts tagged with "Paul Revere Williams":
Harvard's Graduate School of Design (GSD) has launched a new platform to counteract the pervasive and enduring impact of racism that disproportionately affects black designers. The African American Design Nexus brings together the work of black architects and landscape architects from the past and present on the same website to explore their practices and provoke change within design institutions. That change is sorely needed. Only 2 percent of the nearly 110,000 licensed architects are black, while in landscape architecture, just 0.3 percent of licensed practitioners are black. For context, 2017 U.S. Census data estimates that people who identify as black or African American compose 13.4 percent of the country's population. Among the Design Nexus profiles is Hood Design Studio founder (and GSD alumnus) Walter Hood; Studio And founder and Columbia GSAPP professor Mabel O. Wilson; FAD Studio founder, professor, and textile engineer Felecia Davis; and Paul Revere Williams, the midcentury L.A. architect whose stylistically diverse work gained posthumous recognition. The Design Nexus grew from the leadership of Dana McKinney, president of the GSD’s African American Student Union and one of the principal organizers of the school's first Black in Design conference. McKinney and her peers generated a list of 2,000 African and African American designers, and from this list, an initial 50 designer profiles were created for the Design Nexus website by the student union and by the Frances Loeb Library. While there are fewer than 50 pages up now, more will be added over the summer. The project follows in the footsteps of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation's directory of women in architecture, which seeks to boost the visibility of women designers.
The Julius Shulman Institute (JSI) at Woodbury University is currently exhibiting There is Only One Paul R. Williams: A Portrait by Janna Ireland at the school’s WUHO Gallery outpost in Hollywood, a show that re-calibrates and reorients Paul Revere Williams’s built legacy through architectural portrait photography. The exhibition features the work of photographer Janna Ireland, who created a series of black and white photographs that highlight minute elements of buildings designed by the Los Angeles architect. Over the course of getting to know Williams’s work, Ireland, a self-described neophyte to architecture, created over 200 photographs, ultimately gravitating toward, as she explained via email, “the small details because, taken together, they allowed me to make sense of the larger picture. It was a meditative process.” According to curators Andrea Dietz and Audrey Landreth, the monochromatic works on display aim to reconsider the oeuvre of the “prolific yet under-appreciated” Williams, a boundary-smashing African American architect who designed roughly 3,000 works across the Los Angeles area and was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 2017, the institute’s highest honor. “The images that made the final cut did so for the elegant lines and simple geometries that identified the work as Williams's," Dietz explained via email. "The goal was to demonstrate both the consistency and range of Williams's hand—and the unique clarity of Janna's eye.” The finely-considered nature of Ireland’s meditations on Williams’s work brings out subtle and meticulous qualities in the buildings themselves, revealing the romantic and deeply personal moments peppered throughout the homes and structures Williams designed over his 60-year-long career. Working together with the curators, Ireland is able to use the physical space of the gallery to set up conceptual oppositions between idiosyncratic bits of Williams’s work, harnessing the 500-square-foot space to depict a complex and heretofore uncharted portrait of an overlooked genius. Utilizing groups of images to reveal these competing aspects, Ireland breaks down Williams’s monolithic and largely unknowable body of work into more digestible elements, comparing modern and period staircases in one set of images and showcasing the architect’s delicatesse with resolving complex, intersecting geometries in another. Describing this eclecticism, Ireland said that “Williams had to be versatile because he was already at a disadvantage due to his race.” Williams's multi-style approach cloaked a deep fascination—and facility—with the basic components of architectural form. That fascination takes different routes, depending on the project, client, and their desired treatment. In his more modern works, for example, Williams backlit spare, open staircases with vertical runs of glass, filling the areas below the treads with tropical plants and rock gardens. Under more Spanish-inspired stylings, staircases zigzag back and forth solidly, concealing spaces below tile-topped treads. In another instance, a colonial staircase takes on more elegant motions: The doubly-curved underbelly of a stair’s stringer swooping up, revealing a thin and pliable surface decorated with a curved skirtboard, projecting treads and thin balusters. In these images, Ireland conveys a sense of mindful specificity that, when coupled with the various stylistic treatments, makes one yearn for the days before architectural components all came off-the-shelf. Instead, Ireland makes clear the labor of the architect, the hand-built nature of buildings, and the cornucopia of skills necessary to bring drawings and details to life in wood, stone, and plasterwork—aspects that are not only lost in contemporary building, but sorely missing as well. Another grouping—a set of three images—focuses on the skill with which Williams deployed curved geometries, embedding sinuousness deeply and subtly within his work from an era typically associated with straight lines and flat planes. With an undercut swoop of stucco gliding past an eclectic revival doorway, views of colonial-styled trim meeting at unresolved edges, and the freeform, french curve-derived arcs of a midcentury ceiling, Ireland highlights a dexterity with trim, plaster, and ruled surfaces that perhaps also has been lost to time. The swooping eaves and projecting window hoods in other photos describe some of Williams’s best eclectic works, concealing—and creating—unique material collisions that arise inside each building, qualities that are enriched through built-up layers of fondant and trim. “[Williams] labored to find out exactly what his clients wanted and then labored to give it to them. It was more important to him to design for the clients' desires and needs than it was for him to push a singular, distinctive vision," Ireland said. The architect's stylistic dexterity is well-known—his work ran the gamut in terms of style, embodying Hollywood Regency, midcentury modern, as well as Spanish-, Tudor-, and Second Empire- Revival styles—a quality that comes through in the nearly taxonomic photographs Ireland has created to compare their respective components. Though the vast majority of Williams’s works are residential in nature—glitzy chateaus, solemn haciendas, and sprawling ranches that work to convey the clients’ proclivities through curb appeal—the show also highlights his commercial and civic projects, including designs for the stately Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building. The exhibition succeeds where very few have tried and perhaps none have succeeded, painting an intimate, personal, and meticulous portrait of one of the postwar era’s most prolific and virtuosic architects. Ireland said this outcome was self-fulfilling: “If his work seems personal, I think it's because it was. It was of personal importance to him that his work be impeccable, and he was also very consciously designing for the personalities of the people who would be using his buildings.” The maturation of Williams’s prodigious built legacy has generated renewed interest in his work, but much of this interest is too broad in nature. The sheer scope and breadth of Williams’s oeuvre has eluded considered academic examination. "[In] many ways [Williams] has been written out of L.A.’s architectural canon. We’re trying to bust through the dam of people not doing shows on his work," said architect Barbara Bestor, JSI’s director and a major force behind the exhibition. “There’s not enough source documentation of Williams’s work,” she added, alluding to the fact that much of the Williams archive was destroyed by fire following the 1992 L.A. Riots, before the works could be digitized. “In the digital era, if you’re not published online, you cease to exist as a research topic,” Bestor said. “My job as an architect and student of 20th century design is to figure out why so many of my heroes don’t have Wikipedia pages.” Regarding the exhibition, Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter, dean of Woodbury School of Architecture, said, "WUHO is committed to hosting exhibitions that celebrate diversity and reposition important voices often overlooked by mainstream media. Notable past exhibitions have included the 2013 show, Deborah Sussman Loves L.A., a long overdue celebration of this pioneering environmental and graphic designer, and the exhibition of the photographs of Pedro E. Guerrero by the [JSI]." Williams’s work, along with much of the press and academic research associated with it, was collected in a 2010 exhibition organized by the Paul R. Williams Project, an initiative of AIA Memphis and the Art Museum of the University of Memphis. The exhibition was created to highlight the architect’s career and to begin the process of formally documenting his work while re-elevating Williams to the perch atop the discipline he had occupied before his death in 1980. Leslie Luebbers, project director for the Paul R. Williams Project, explained via email that work was currently underway to bring the exhibition to other parts of the country in a few years. For now, the group is touting a bibliography of Williams’s writings and mentions in the press in an effort to spur new academic research on the architect. As those efforts take flight, Ireland’s photographs will perhaps provide impetus for new insights into Williams’ storied career. “Looking at details (and shooting in black and white) allowed me to focus on form and design,” Ireland explained. “I interpret his work as being meticulous yet really warm and human, and those are the qualities I wanted to convey.” The exhibition is on view through February 11, 2018. See the WUHO Gallery website for more information.
With the housing market tightening, and homes by big–name architects commanding a 5 to 10 percent premium over comparable buildings, both homeowners and prospective buyers are turning to architectural historians to tie their houses to iconic designers. As The Wall Street Journal notes, the practice isn’t without merit. A post-purchase debunking of a house sold on the merits of its architect can wipe out the building’s value, akin to a forged artwork. Even "new" homes by Frank Lloyd Wright, an architect whose projects have been catalogued in extreme detail by Chicago’s Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy (FLWBC), still surface regularly. William Allin Storrer, a Wright historian, explained the appeal of marketing a home as one designed by Wright to the WSJ. “It maybe raises a building’s value by a factor of five or more. A $160,000 home would be worth $1.5 million if it was by Wright.” The FLWBC and other preservation groups have tried to thoroughly vet the claims that come their way, as the sale of a Wright-designed home often makes the news. The circular Normal Lykes House in Phoenix, Arizona, was designed by Wright in 1959 shortly before his death, and has been written about extensively in the last few weeks after it was put up for sale. Los Angeles County in particular is rife with single-family homes that have dubious architectural pedigrees. Paul Revere Williams, a Los Angeles native and the first African American to gain admittance to the American Institute of Architects, and Julia Morgan, the first woman architect licensed in California, built homes throughout the state, but their work has not been extensively catalogued. As homeowners reach out to the historians and non-profit groups to verify their claims, any newly discovered buildings would help flesh out the canon of these architects’ work. If those claims aren't possible to prove, then as the The Wall Street Journal Reports, brokers will often list the home as "in the style of" one of these architects. Putting in extra effort to determine a home’s architectural authenticity is especially necessary to help protect consumers, as brokers and sellers attempt to make use of the added value that these labels can bring. For instance, it’s unlikely that Paul Rudolph, who was known for his brutalist projects, would have designed a sprawling estate with teal terraced roofs and a helipad.
AIA Gold Medal–winner Paul Revere Williams: An African American architect who transformed L.A.'s modernist architecture
The Architect's Newspaper is partnering with USModernist to showcase its comprehensive archive of American modernist designers. This is the first post in a series that will highlight individual entries. Paul Revere Williams was a Los Angeles–born, African-American architect who had an outsize impact on the region’s architectural legacy. Williams graduated from the University of Southern California in 1914 and eventually went on to design over 3,000 buildings over his five-decade-long career. Los Angeles residents and visitors alike are likely familiar with the designer’s work, if not his name—a lasting legacy that only recently came into the spotlight. Williams was posthumously awarded the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) 2017 Gold Medal—the organization’s highest honor, “recognizing individuals whose work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture”—this year. For some, the recognition was thought to have come too late, especially in a field continually struggling with a lack of diversity. Lack of recognition does not detract from greatness, however, and Williams was a titan of American design through and through. As a young practitioner, he worked for architects Reginald Johnson and later John Austin, great architects in their own right. Williams became licensed in 1921, opening his own practice just a year later. He became the first African-American member of the AIA in 1923 and the first African-American AIA Fellow in 1957. Throughout his career, Williams worked across styles and locales, but it was his Modernist-style works that have persevered across time and still inspire us to this day. Williams is perhaps best known, inaccurately, for his collaboration with William Pereira, Charles Luckman, and Welton Becket on the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport from 1961. The Googie-style building is considered to be among the most important midcentury modernist works in Los Angeles, though Williams did not help design it. The structure consists of a flat, disk-shaped observation and restaurant area suspended off the ground by a pair of intersecting, parabolic arches. Some of Williams’s work is located outside Los Angeles, as well, including his collaboration with architect Quincy A. Jones on the Palm Springs Tennis Club and the La Concha Motel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Williams was a virtuoso of architectural style, as best exemplified by the architect’s many residential projects. Williams’s efforts, attuned to Southern California’s finicky penchant for pastiche and historical revivalism, range in style from the Hollywood Regency to the Spanish Revival, and, of course, modernist treatments. Williams was responsible for extensive interior and exterior renovations to the famed Ambassador Hotel in 1949. The architect worked on several renovations and additions to the Beverly Hills Hotel during the 1940s, including the iconic facade showcasing the hotel’s name in fanciful script. Williams dabbled in socially-responsible work, too, and—along with Richard Neutra—was responsible for designing the garden city-inspired Pueblo del Rio public housing projects in 1941. In a testament to Williams's lasting legacy, eight of his works are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and many more are still standing across Southern California. To read more about Williams, see his USModernist entry.
Yesterday we got a sneak peak at the Paul Williams Showcase House in La Canada Flintridge, which 25 (yes 25) designers are working to completely restore and open for tours from April 17 to May 15. The project is part of the Pasadena Showcase of Design, a fundraiser that since its inception in 1965 has seen renovations of significant homes throughout the Pasadena area. The 1927 English Revival manor, with its amazing attention to detail, is an excellent example of Williams' ability to design in a traditional style despite his reputation for contemporary work. The once-musty and fading 7,200 square foot house is being fixed up from top to bottom. Basically, each designer gets a room or two. For example, LA-based David Dalton will be renovating the "Great Room", with its vaulted wood ceiling, leaded windows, and hand carved fireplace, and the "Gentleman's Lounge," inpsired by the Paris apartment of Yves Saint Laurent. "We've had our eye on this house for quite a long time," said Benefit Chair Kathryn Hofgaarden. "It's super important that we preserve its integrity." Stay tuned to see it featured in our House of The Issue when it's all done.
Love Lucy? Lucille Ball, that is. Then you'll love her architect, too. Opening on October 22, the Art Museum of the University of Memphis is hosting the first museum exhibition of African-American architect Paul Revere Williams whose work spans the 1920s through the 1960s. While Paul Revere Williams is best known for his work on the west coast, his career took him across the country and the globe. Williams designed more than 3,000 structures on four continents including the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Los Angeles Airport (LAX), the Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue, and, of course, the home of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The exhibition features 200 new photographs capturing the breadth of Williams' work arranged by decade and offers insights into the barrier-breaking life of the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects and one of the most esteemed architects of the 20th century. From a release:
Born and reared in Los Angeles, Williams came to define the high-style look of Hollywood in the mid-1900s, and he was well known as “architect to the stars,” but he always considered himself an expert in the design of small homes. Williams was also a leader in developing new types of buildings that were demanded by the post-WWII suburban economy. His buildings contributed significantly to the popular image of 20th century Los Angeles and to the California style, but his work didn’t stop at the state line or even the national boundary. Williams was also licensed in Washington, D.C., Nevada, New York, and Tennessee, where he designed the original building for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis and a master plan for Fisk University in Nashville. He also had a busy practice in Colombia, South America, and projects in Mexico, Europe, and Africa.A public reception will take place on the evening of October 22 at 5:00 and the exhibit runs through January 8, 2011 at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis.