AIArchitectInstititute News
03/2006 Spinning a Golden Webb
First AIA Gold Medal recipient a highly regarded British architect

by Russell Boniface
Associate Editor

As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the AIA bestowed its first Gold Medal on English architect Sir Aston Webb in 1907. Webb, known for his Beaux Arts and Victorian works, humbly thanked the reception crowd, saying, “The memory of this evening will remain with me all my life. I shall take the medal home and keep it amongst my most treasured possessions.”

Worth its weight in gold
At the start of the 20th century, the AIA Gold Medal was an apt indicator of the heady and confident air of Americans, who were building a society containing the best of the old and new architectural styles. For example, immense rebuilding projects in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco featured huge malls, large squares, and long boulevards sprinkled with elaborate civic sculptures and triumphal arches. American architecture was coming of age, although consensus did not exist on what was its appropriate style. This ambiguity, coupled with an increasing fascination with French culture and art in the latter half of the 19th century, made the Beaux Arts style particularly attractive to American architects. Against this background of American Classicism in architecture, the AIA established the Gold Medal.

But why a Brit?
One of the leading architects of the day, Charles Follen McKim played a central role in the founding of the AIA Gold Medal. McKim, the first American architect to attend the École des Beaux-Arts, served as AIA secretary in 1878, and then as president in 1902-1903. Having been awarded the 1903 Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Gold Medal by Sir Aston Webb, RIBA’s president, McKim suggested that the AIA start a Gold Medal award, tie it in with the 50th anniversary, and recommended that the honor go to Sir Aston Webb of England, thus returning the favor.

Sir Aston Webb had been president of RIBA and had been elected as a full member of the Royal Academy. Webb was neither a student at the Ecole nor officially trained as a Beaux Arts student. Nevertheless, Webb was a highly regarded French Classicism architect known for mixing French, Gothic, Victorian, and Renaissance styles. His works includes the Gothic-style Royal Grammar School Worcester in 1877; a major restoration of the church of St. Bartholomew-the-Great in 1890; the Victoria Law Courts terra cotta structure in 1891; and the Royal United Services Institution, with its cherubic figures, in 1893.

Webb’s best known works include the principal facade of Buckingham Palace, which he redesigned in 1912, and the Admiralty Arch in 1909. The arch, located between the Mall and Trafalgar Square, is actually a tripled arch made of Portland stone. Webb also designed the Chancellor’s Court at the University of Birmingham, founded in 1900, the main feature of which is its large dome. Webb was not alone in mixing styles. English architecture from the 1870s on reflected an increasing mix of various forms of Classicism. Webb’s work, which initially was in a variety of French medieval modes, changed dramatically by 1900, becoming full-fledged Classicism with an evident French bias.

Webb cherishes the Gold Medal
When Webb, who previously had been awarded the RIBA Gold Medal, received the first AIA Gold Medal in 1907, he openly acknowledged his Beaux Arts leanings at his acceptance speech. In discussing the proper placement and grand approach to buildings, Webb lamented the English failing and praised the Beaux Arts Classicism in the U.S., citing projects such as the McMillan plan for the National Mall in Washington, D.C. He went on to say that “the French, of course, are the masters of the work of arranging public buildings.”

Webb’s selection affirmed the formal, grand Classicism increasingly preferred by American architects. Frank Miles Day, the president of the AIA in 1907, cited in his presentation speech of the Gold Medal the numerous contributions made—and being made—by English architects and pointed out that Webb was the leading figure in classical English architecture. Day stressed that English architecture plays a large part in America.

Webb reciprocated by assuring the AIA that “all architects on the other side of the water will deeply appreciate the fact that on this, the jubilee day of your Institute, and the institution of this gold medal, you should send it over to the other side. Nothing … they would appreciate more than that, and I venture to think that it must do a great deal to strengthen the good feeling and friendship which I am glad to think already exists between the architects of both countries.”

Webb proclaimed that he would always cherish his AIA Gold Medal. “When I look at it, as I often shall, it will remind me—though no reminder will be needed—of your wonderful country, your splendid architecture, and your boundless generosity and hospitality which you so lavishly bestow on my countrymen and have extended to me on this occasion.”

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AIA150 Rolling History
 A Beginning, 1857-1866
 The Second Decade, 1867-1876
 1877-1886: Westward and Upward
 1887-1896: A Decade of Outreach, Inclusiveness, and Internationalism
 Women and Women Architects in the 1890s
 1897-1906: The AIA Moves to and Changes Washington
 The Institute's Influence on Legislative Policy
 At 50, the AIA Conceives the Gold Medal, Receives Roosevelt's Gratitude
 Spinning a Golden Webb
 1909-1917: The Institute Comes of Age in the Nation's Capital
 1917-1926: A New Power Structure: World War I, Pageantry, and the Power of the Press
 1927-1936: A Decade of Depression and Perseverance
 The AIA in Its Ninth Decade: 1937-1946
 1947-1956: Wright Recognition, White House Renovation, AIA Closes on 100
 The Tenth Decade: 1957-1966
 1967-1976: New HQ and a New Age Take Center Stage
 A New Home for the AIA in 1973; A Greener Home in 2007
 Diversity and the Profession: Take II
 'The Vietnam Situation Is Hell': The AIA's Internal Struggle over the War in Southeast Asia
 1977-1986: Activism and Capital-A Architecture Are Alive at the AIA
 1987-1996 Technology, Diversity, and Expansion

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