“Elegantly written and based upon Shieldhouse’s extensive interviews with the architect, William Morgan is indispensable, opening new avenues of understanding why and how Morgan’s research about earth and pre-Columbian architecture enabled an extraordinary oeuvre of humanist architecture in the globalizing world, achieving the embodiment of his democratic and pioneering multicultural, environmental, and ethical agenda.”—Jean-François Lejeune, coeditor of Modern Architecture and the Mediterranean: Vernacular Dialogues and Contested Identities
“The first book to thoroughly explore the personal story of William Morgan’s life journey and his development as an architect, offering a better understanding of the meaning and basis behind his significant and beautiful architecture.”—Guy W. Peterson, FAIA, founder and principal, Guy Peterson Office for Architecture
“This book presents personal and useful insight into the life and work of William Morgan, a most remarkable architect who was able to combine the creed of modern architecture, the built lessons from ancient civilizations, and the spirit of place in its broadest sense.” —Fernando Vegas López-Manzanares, coauthor of Centro histórico de Valencia: Ocho siglos de arquitectura residencial
“Shieldhouse introduces us to William Morgan, who, inspired by archaeology and the architecture of ancient and indigenous civilizations, brought a unique perspective to his modernist designs of the postwar decades.” —Theodore H. M. Prudon, author of Preservation of Modern Architecture
“A rich tour of postwar American architectural culture.”—Ben Koush, architect, Ben Koush Associates
William Morgan (1930–2016) was a bold, innovative, and highly imaginative architect known internationally for fusing ancient and modern styles and for his early championing of green design principles. This extensively illustrated book traces Morgan’s life story and the development of his singular design vision.
Exploring Morgan’s early influences, Richard Shieldhouse reveals the architect’s childhood familiarity with pre-Columbian village sites and introduces college mentors who encouraged his interest in both architecture and archaeology. During navy service in the Pacific, Morgan studied ancient structures in Guam as well as Frank Lloyd Wright’s design work in Japan. Later, his drive and discipline brought him into contact with leading architects including Paul Rudolph at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, a hotbed of modernism at the time. From there, Morgan struck out on his own in Jacksonville, Florida, to shape the course of architectural history.
William Morgan: Evolution of an Architect tracks the evolution of Morgan’s guiding ideas—economy, efficiency, visual delight, imaginative use of everyday materials, and environmental sensitivity. His most famous designs are featured with photographs, drawings, and the architect’s own commentary. Structures such as the Dunehouses, an underground beachfront duplex, represent Morgan’s commitment to earth architecture. His plans for police headquarters and other public buildings incorporate green roofs, stepped terraces, pyramid forms, and other elements inspired by aspects of prehistoric design.
Morgan was unique among architects for his interest in ancient North America and for blending a modern style characterized by its rejection of history with the design language of prehistory. Highlighting how his work has impacted many areas of architecture, including urban design, this book celebrates Morgan’s continuing legacy.
Richard Shieldhouse is a city planner, preservationist, and tourism expert based in Jacksonville, Florida.
In this interview, Richard Shieldhouse talks about his new book and William Morgan’s legacy.
What made you decide to write about Morgan?
Two fine books previously published on Morgan documented his remarkable body of work, but I felt there was a need to explore the roots and evolution of his creativity. William Morgan: Evolution of an Architect plunges into the biographical and personal realms of the architect. It also provides images of his more recent projects and documents how his buildings have endured over the years.
How would you describe Morgan’s signature style?
Morgan’s work used a variety of architectural styles, but his best-known works uniquely married the simplicity of modernism, earth architecture, and aspects of ancient North American building.
What is earth architecture, and what role did Morgan have in shaping it?
Morgan described earth architecture as the “architectural uses of earth in shaping the environment of humankind,” and he meant that literally. Morgan’s designs shaped earth into a variety of buildings and shapes: a mound-like oceanfront duplex, twin pyramids housing the headquarters for a navy submarine base, and a solitary residential pyramid atop a lofty hill in the Central Florida countryside.
What about Morgan’s designs drew you to them?
I’m drawn to the way Morgan’s designs during the peak of his practice blended elements of the earliest American builders and earth architecture with the more orthodox modernism of figures such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. His designs for urban environments in Florida sought to minimize the impact of automobiles, while creating attractive environments for the buildings’ users and for pedestrians. This kind of thinking unfortunately appears to have been forgotten in recent Florida urban development.
What personality traits and quirks did he possess that made him such a unique architect?
Morgan was confident, creative, original, independent. These characteristics combined in him to create unorthodox—yet fundamentally appealing—residential, governmental, commercial, and religious structures, which remain respected after many decades.
Was Morgan always interested in studying architecture?
During his undergraduate years at Harvard College, Morgan flipped from one area of concentration (law, archaeology, etc.) to another until a dean literally pointed to the architecture building and suggested Morgan find a home there. But Morgan retained broad interests throughout his life, including an interest in archaeology. He published five books dealing with the subject, and he also sought to integrate principles of early builders into his modern designs.
Who were Morgan’s most important mentors while he was at Harvard?
Morgan’s work with architect Paul Rudolph during his first year at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design profoundly impacted him. Rudolph exposed Morgan to an influential architect at the apex of his career. Rudolph also provided valuable lessons to Morgan about what it takes to run a successful practice and introduced him to some of the leading practitioners in the field. But the faculty member at Harvard that most influenced Morgan was the architectural historian Eduard F. Sekler, who instilled in his pupil a profound reverence for buildings and places from the past.
After receiving his degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Morgan won the prestigious Wheelwright Prize, which allowed him to travel the world for architectural research. How did this experience change the way he designed?
The Wheelwright Prize provided a platform for Morgan to investigate examples of earth architecture around the planet. His immersion into the subject led Morgan to more extensively explore earth forms as a basis for sustainable modern architecture and eventually to some of his best-known work, such as the Dunehouses, a duplex built into the remnant of an ancient dune in Atlantic Beach, Florida, and the Florida State Museum (now Dickinson Hall) on the University of Florida campus.
How would you describe the legacy Morgan left behind after his passing in 2016?
I believe Morgan will be remembered as an architect who married modernism with the design principles of ancient builders to create an architecture that uniquely respects both humanity and place.
What are you working on next?
From 1917 to 1918, the United States operated 14 naval aviation facilities along the French Coast. I am continuing archival research into these bases—their genesis, operations, struggles, and successes. This was a remarkable effort that rapidly deployed what was then advanced technology to thwart German submarine attacks. Little is known about it, and I’d like to change that.