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"Not precious and never pompous"

A rare audio recording: On 12 June 1979, a year after the death of her partner Charles Eames, Ray Eames accepted the Medal from RIBA President Gordon Graham.

13 May 2020

An audio recording of Ray Eames and RIBA President Gordon Graham at the RIBA Royal Gold Medal ceremony 1979

The polished limestone wall in the entrance of the Royal Institute of British Architects headquarters in London is decorated with the names of past Royal Gold Medallists. Each year, a new name is incised into the fabric of the building following the official presentation of the Medal, an honour given in recognition of a lifetime’s work and approved personally by Her Majesty the Queen.

Although the ceremony is a private function, there are glimpses of the proceedings in our collections and archive.

Kept in library storage boxes are transcripts of speeches by Royal Gold Medallists: Buckminster Fuller lectures in 1968 on his philosophy of life and education; Louis Kahn addressing guests with a speech on architecture and town planning in 1972; and a speech made by French architect Joseph Louis Duc in 1876 is available to read… in French.

Charles Eames in the foyer of the Royal Institute of British Architects in front of engravings of Royal Gold Medallists, 14 April 1959. Photographed by Sam Lambert, RIBA Collections

Since the mid-1970s, RIBA has audio or video recorded the medal presentation. However, the older analogue formats are unavailable to library users.    

Never released to the public before, however, is the 131st presentation of the Royal Gold Medal to the office of Charles & Ray Eames. This one-off treasure was converted to a digital file by RIBA’s former Chief Archivist, the architectural historian Kurt Helfrich.

Charles and Ray Eames. Photographed by Sam Lambert, RIBA Collections

On 12 June 1979, a year after the death of her partner Charles Eames (1907–1978), Ray Eames accepted the Medal from RIBA President Gordon Graham (1920–1997). The choice of the American husband and wife designer duo was perhaps not surprising given the nature of the selection committee, comprising architects with a strong affiliation with the modernist philosophy and receptive to American design influences. Amongst these were Peter Aldington, the architect of The Turn, Middle Turn and Turn End – also designed in partnership with his wife Margaret – and Norman Foster, who, 40 years later, is collecting the works of the Eames’ for his private foundation.

Portrait of Gordon Graham, President of the RIBA in 1977-1979, RIBA Collections.

The choice stands out from previous appointments, as noted in the speech by Gordon Graham:

“During the last 150 years, the Royal Gold Medal has crossed the Atlantic on ten occasions and tonight will be the eleventh. This is only the second occasion, however, that the medal has been conferred upon a corporate group of people. […] But this is the first and only occasion so far when the President of the day had the pleasure of investing a lady.”

Originally trained as an artist, Bernice Alexandra "Ray" Kaiser Eames (1912–1988) is the first woman to bear the Royal Gold Medal since its inception in 1848. This is an important observation made by Graham, and a much overdue recognition of the contribution of women to the architectural discourse.

Yet, what makes the creative partnership of Charles and Ray Eames different from previous Medal recipients is their limited architectural output.

Although the citation references their 1949 Santa Monica house as an important modern masterpiece, it is their expanded definition of the design field that is being rewarded. Citing their unique contribution to film and the modern communication forms through which their creativity is channelled, the RIBA President also credits the Eames’ for heralding mass production and new technologies to create designs that are “not precious and never pompous”. For one year, in 1979, the Royal Gold Medal breaks away from its past and future focus on ‘architecture with a capital A’ to pay tribute to mainstream culture and design for everyday life.

Eames house, 206 Chautauqua Way, Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, RIBA Collections

An emotional Ray Eames accepts the honour, speaking of the close links with the UK and her late husband’s admiration for British architectural education. She references influences such as design pioneer Gordon Russell and architectural historians Nikolaus Pevsner and Herbert Read. She also names a long list of Brits who spent time at their Californian office, including engineer of the Leicester Engineering Building Frank Newby and architects Alison and Peter Smithson, whose brutalist style is attributed to the Eames.

Sadly, this recording is unable to capture the films that Ray screened as part of the acceptance speech, but hopefully this rare audio recording of a bygone era will, for 20 minutes, let ‘mainstream’ audiences feel closer to the architectural elite and thinking  of the late 1970s.   

The RIBA is looking for nominations for the Royal Gold Medal 2021. Find out more about the criteria and submit your nominations for next year.

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