Designing Art in Architecture
By Anna Wang
Good engineers design for beauty as well as they do for utility. As I looked up at the AMA Plaza in Chicago, I was in awe that the beautiful building I was staring at was used as a parking garage.
It intrigues me that art and design can be incorporated into architecture. That’s precisely what Julia Morgan did.
Julia Morgan (1872-1957) was one of the most well-known and prolific woman engineers in the United States, designing over 800 buildings in California over the course of her life, highlighting her engineering ingenuity .
Morgan was ahead of her time by establishing earthquake resistant buildings. After the disastrous 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, one of the only buildings that did not collapse was the Mills College bell tower, which she designed . The frequent earthquakes of the Bay Area provided her the opportunity to design hundreds of homes, churches, offices, and schools. One of her most important projects after the earthquake was when she was commissioned to rebuild the Fairmont Hotel. To make the hotel earthquake-safe, she reset the steel framework, replaced marbled ceilings, fortified stairs, and most importantly, innovatively used reinforced concrete . The reinforced concrete was anchored 30 feet down to ensure complete stabilization.
Morgan’s ingenuity in engineering shines through in her other buildings, as well. When designing the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, also known as Hearst Castle, she found ways to incorporate art into her building designs. William Randolph Hearst, who commissioned her, wanted her to incorporate his vast collection of antiques, paintings, and art objects that he brought from Europe . Morgan found ways to design around the art. For example, she suspended the 14th century ceilings he loved, so that they would shake during an earthquake instead of collapsing. She also incorporated Greek tiles in entranceways and recessed Greek medallions into the concrete walls. In the Hearst library, Morgan created faux arches, with gothic Biblical scenes painted on them. Additionally, she designed the water and plumbing systems for Hearst Castle by using a gravity flow system connected to the springs in the hills behind the Castle.
What makes her so special?
Julia Morgan pioneered engineering and architecture for women, a field exclusive to men in the 20th century. She was the only woman in her civil engineering class at the University of California, Berkeley, and was the first woman to be admitted to the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSBA), a prestigious fine arts graduate school in Paris, for architecture . She then went on to become the first woman to receive an architect license in California and after her death, the AIA Gold Medal, the highest honor for architecture . Morgan was inspired by the feminist views of the French bohemians and learned from them how to increase the influence of women in professional careers. She surmounted gender barriers at home and abroad, and her legacy is ongoing as her work continues to inspire young women to follow their dreams.