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La Concha Motel, Las Vegas, by Paul Revere Williams
Paul Revere Williams' buildings include the 1961 La Concha Motel in Las Vegas, which is now located at the city's Neon Museum

Paul Revere Williams becomes first black architect to receive AIA Gold Medal

The American Institute of Architects has this year bestowed its highest honour on the late Paul Revere Williams, who is the first African American to receive the award.

Williams, who was born in California in 1894 and died in 1980, was also the first black architect to become a member of the AIA in 1923 and the first to be elected a fellow of the organisation in 1957.

Among the 3,000 buildings he designed during his five-decade career are the Palm Springs Tennis Center, created with A Quincy Jones; the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) with William Pereira, Charles Luckman and Welton Becket; and private residences for entertainers like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Lon Chaney, Frank Sinatra and Barron Hilton.

"This is a moment in our institute's history that is so important to recognise and acknowledge the work of a champion," said Phil Freelon, managing and design director at US firm Perkins + Will, who presented to the AIA Board of Directors on behalf of Williams.

"It's been many decades but Paul Williams is finally being recognised for the brilliant work he did over many years."

LAX Theme Building
The 2017 AIA Gold Medal winner also worked on the LAX Theme Building

Williams was orphaned aged four and raised by a foster mother who encouraged his artistic development. He pursued a career in architecture despite a teacher's concerns that he wouldn't get work from white clients, and that the black community wouldn't sustain his practice.

After opening his practice in the early 1920s during a real-estate boom in Southern California, he quickly gained an affluent client base and eventually designed over 2,000 homes.

"Our profession desperately needs more architects like Paul Williams," said architect William J Bates, in support of the nomination. "His pioneering career has encouraged others to cross a chasm of historic biases."

"I can't think of another architect whose work embodies the spirit of the Gold Medal better," he added. "His recognition demonstrates a significant shift in the equity for the profession and the institute."

Paul Revere Williams
Paul Revere Williams is the first black architect to receive the prestigious award

The AIA Gold Medal is awarded annually to architects in recognition of their legacy to the field.

Past recipients include Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Le Corbusier, Louis I Kahn, I M Pei, Thom Mayne and Moshe Safdie. Last year's winners were husband-and-wife team Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi.

The announcement rounds off a turbulent year for the AIA, which cancelled a conference in North Carolina in a protest against the state's new anti-LGBT law, and issued an apology after a backlash against a pledge to work with president-elect Donald Trump.