A photographer reflects on getting to know the work of legendary architect Paul Revere Williams

In Reverence

I photographed my first Paul Revere Williams buildings in December 2016, the same month it was announced that he had been posthumously awarded the 2017 AIA Gold Medal. During his lifetime, Williams was the first Black architect to achieve many things. Now, almost 40 years after his death, here was another. His being the first Black architect to be awarded the Gold Medal has proved to be a double-edged sword; that novelty piques people’s interest in Williams’s story but sometimes obscures the genius of the work itself.

“Bel Air, 2019” (Janna Ireland)

“Encino, 2020” (Janna Ireland)

Williams had a vast and varied career. He ran his own practice from 1923 to 1973 and designed approximately 3,000 structures. Though he is best known for his grand revivalist mansions, he also designed small private residences, public housing projects, banks, hospitals, churches, and schools, worked in many contemporary styles, and had an active interest in innovative materials. His versatility was another mixed blessing; it kept him in business for 50 years but also made his work difficult to quantify. In spite of his innumerable contributions to the field of architecture, his work has largely been left out of the conversation.

In her book, Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer’s View, Janna Ireland documents dozens of the architect’s Los Angeles buildings. (He designed 2,000 in the city.) Some of Ireland’s most Facing page: “Encino, 2020” This page: “Hancock Park, House 3, 2019” (top); “Hancock Park, House 1, 2017” (above) interesting images depict the interiors of Williams’s homes, which vary dramatically in style.

“Hancock Park, House 3, 2019” (Janna Ireland)

The Gold Medal seemed to set a lot of things in motion; I have watched with awe and delight as countless initiatives, articles, and projects about Williams and his work have appeared in the years since. My project has been one small part of a momentous and multifaceted effort to renew Williams’s reputation and ensure that our understanding of his work continues to grow.

“Hancock Park, House 1, 2017” (Janna Ireland)

My book, Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer’s View (Angel City Press, 2020) was published last September. The book contains nearly 250 photographs of Williams-designed structures in Southern California and Las Vegas from 2016 through 2020. Three months prior, in June, the Getty Research Institute and the USC School of Architecture announced that they had jointly acquired Williams’s archives, long thought by many to have been lost in a fire during the 1992 L.A. uprising. I benefited enormously from this coincidental timing; my book was buoyed by the upsurge of interest in Williams and his work that followed the announcement. I spent the next several months on a virtual book tour, sharing my work with audiences across the United States from a makeshift desk in my bedroom.

“Miracle Mile, 2017” (Janna Ireland)

Now that book-related engagements have begun to taper off, I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s next. My book is done, but my quest doesn’t feel complete. There are more Williams-designed structures I’d like to photograph, and the archive, which will eventually be accessible to the public, beckons. I don’t yet know what form these continued investigations will take, but I pledge myself to the effort—Williams’s immense, remarkable body of work deserves and rewards an extended commitment.