Black History Month Contest Winner :: Week 4


“If I allow the fact that I am Negro to checkmate my will to do, now, I will inevitably form the habit of being defeated.”
Paul Revere Williams is one of the most noted African-American architects of all time. Although he practiced mainly in Southern California, his talent and exploits are recognized all over the world. Williams’ inspiring story is one of adaptation and diversification against all odds, while breaking barriers at the same time. We can all learn from Paul Williams to develop the skills we have and to make the most out of our situations.

Williams grew up as an orphan, and he struggled to gain encouragement for his artistic talents. He continued to hone his talents for design throughout his youth, despite teachers telling him not to pursue a career in architecture, simply because he was black. However, Williams’ persistence would begin to pay off. He studied at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design, then moving on to attend the University of Southern California’s School of Engineering, earning commissions for designing several homes in Los Angeles.

Williams' design for the Lucille Ball + Desi Arnaz Residence in Palm Springs 

By 1919, at age 25, Williams won an important architectural competition that he thought would jump-start his career. However, as he struggled to gain attention for his design work, he perfected his drafting skills to make himself indispensable. After becoming the first black registered architect west of the Mississippi in 1921, he worked for Los Angeles architect John C. Austin, eventually becoming chief draftsman at the firm. It was here where he developed the skill of rendering upside down for clients who may have been uncomfortable sitting next to a black architect. By 1924, he struck out on his own to open his own firm.

Still struggling to gain notoriety, Williams found that to survive, he had to take commissions that more prominent white architects had rejected. Not one to cave in to the pressure, Williams became more politically active, and focused on his passion of residential design. He mastered modern interpretations of several styles, including Tudor-revival, French Chateau, and Mediterranean vernacular. As the Great Depression took a toll on the public side of his business, he went on to design hundreds of homes for the wealthy elite Hollywood stars of the day, located mostly in the Hollywood Hills, Bel Air, and Mid-Wilshire areas of Los Angeles.

Langston Terrace
As Williams successfully navigated throughout the challenges of post-Depression America, he partnered with several architects for numerous public works projects. He designed the first federally funded housing project, Langston Terrace, in 1938 in Washington, D.C. It was hailed as one of the few successful examples of International Style low-rent housing.  Learn more about this project here.

Williams at the opening of the LAX Theme Building in 1961 [Image courtesy USC]
In 1961, Williams was part of the team that designed the iconic Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport. Built to resemble a flying saucer landing on earth, it represents America’s progression into the futuristic jet age. Originally, the center dome was to be enclosed by glass with all of the terminals branching from this central point. Costs and logistics kept that from occurring as the terminals were built elsewhere on the property. The structure functioned as a rotating observation deck for patrons waiting for flights.  In 1997, the structure was renovated and turned into a restaurant. However, the main deck no longer rotates.

Over his five-decade career, Paul Williams designed over 3000 buildings, earned numerous awards, donated his time to several political and social organizations, and became one of the most respected architects of the 20th century. As the pioneering first African-American to become a Fellow of the AIA in 1957, Williams’ significance is still being felt throughout the design world today.

Learn more about Paul Williams’ work at www.paulrwilliamsproject.org.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the Black History Month Contest to help make it a successful effort.  Learn more about the other designers we profiled by clicking here.

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