There is Only One Paul R. Williams

A Portrait by Janna Ireland
presented by Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter, AIA, Dean, Woodbury School of Architecture
organized by Barbara Bestor, FAIA, Director, Julius Shulman Institute
curated by Andrea Dietz and Audrey Landreth

Woodbury University Hollywood Gallery
December 9, 2017 – January 21, 2018

Los Angeles-based photographer, Janna Ireland, takes a timely and nuanced look at the built legacy of African-American architect and 2017 AIA Gold Medalist, Paul R. Williams (February 18, 1894 – January 23, 1980). In an intimate contemplation of a range of Williams’ southern California projects, Ireland’s images provide access to the personality behind and narratives latent to the creations of one of architecture’s under-recognized greats.

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“There is only one Paul R. Williams,” is a quote grabbed from the introduction to Paul R. Williams’ 1945 residential design publication, New Homes for Today. The first sentence in a statement by “a prominent (but unnamed) critic,” the text goes on: “His work stands alone. A house by Paul Williams is the finest trademark one can find in the field of architecture. His houses are designed around the way an owner lives which gives them personality.”

There is Only One Paul R. Williams: A Portrait by Janna Ireland aims directly for that architectural personality. Paul R. Williams, despite the barriers he broke, despite his prolific legacy, despite his recently belated accolades, is, after all, a relative unknown. Or, his notoriety is through the qualifiers of his race and times. Janna Ireland’s photographs, on the other hand, cut straight to the architecture and, in turn, its architect. Her still images zoom in on and capture authorship, holding Paul R. Williams’ architecture to its originating voice.

In these perspectives laid bare, Paul R. Williams’ real genius shines through. It’s a genius that lies in its challenge to the very notion of architectural genius. Williams’ works are stylistically fluid—a promiscuity for which he was belittled by the architectural elite. For not upholding a singular aesthetic vision, Williams could be dismissed as artistically illegible. His gift, too, is overlooked in the seamlessness with which his architecture fits into (or, rather, makes up) the fabric of the city of Los Angeles. Williams, in other words, may have been a black man in the pre-civil rights era; but, he also worked outside of the inner-circle standards for disciplinary promotion. The obstacles to his understanding and renown exceed the societal circumstances of his life and the loss of his archive to the 1992 riots; they include his fundamental re-appreciation of good architectural design.

Paul R. Williams’ architectures are translations of vantages other to him. His interpretations go beyond inhabitations of and for classes and races different from his. They constitute immersions into his clients’ individual lives and projections across his architectures’ lifetimes. Unlike that of many of his more recognized contemporaries, his was a project less in architectural self-expression, more in the architectural ciphering of the behaviors and ideals of specific peoples and in the cultivation of lasting qualities from modern trends. His works reflect his uncanny ability to design through someone else’s eyes and to build out the spirit of the moment, all while elevating both.

In the photographs of There is Only One Paul R. Williams: A Portrait by Janna Ireland, Janna Ireland makes Paul R. Williams’ unique strengths evident. She finds the consistency of his eye and hand in the simple lines of his divergent architectures and, in so doing, points to the steadiness of his approach, of his prioritization of design attitude over design style. Her celebration of what have become the everyday figures of Los Angeles’s architectural landscape sheds light on Williams’ ubiquity, on the ongoing influence of his conflations of architecture and lifestyle. She wakes up not just Williams’ architectural personality, but the notion of architecture imbued with personality.

Map of Paul R. Williams’ Architecture


With thanks to our sponsors:
Mary Blodgett and Carlton Calvin
Trina Turk and Jonathan Skow
REDWOOD Real Estate Brokerage, Inc.
Bestor Architecture


Select Press
Photographer captures the artistry and impact of architect Paul R. Williams,” Curbed Los Angeles (Pauline O’Connor)
Photography exhibit highlights the pioneering work of Paul Revere Williams,” The Architect’s Newspaper (Antonio Pacheco)