Nathaniel A. Owings, a founder of the renowned architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and a leading force in the design of Washington for the past two decades, has been awarded the 1983 Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects.

Owings is the 44th recipient of the medal, American architecture's highest award, since its inception 76 years ago. His late partner, architect Louis Skidmore, won the award in 1957. The small firm that they started with engineer John O. Merrill in Chicago in 1936 as a "modern 'Gothic Builders Guild' " burgeoned after World War II to become one of the larger and more influential architectural operations in the world.

Reached yesterday by telephone at "Wild Bird," the home he designed on a promontory along the Big Sur coast in California, Owings said, "I am very happy to have received this honor. I consider myself a member of the kind of common man department. I'm not an I.M. Pei, not an Alvar Aalto, not a Frank Lloyd Wright [each a designer-architect who, incidentally, had previously received the Gold Medal]. My field has been the conceptual field, the broad scope."

"Nat's genius has been to get other people to do good work -- that, and his great strength in urban design," commented David Childs, the partner who heads the firm's Washington office.

Widely known simply by its initials, SOM, the firm set high standards for large-scale corporate and public building designs. It now employs about 1,500 people in nine offices throughout the United States. Since 1952 the firm has won 18 AIA honor awards for design excellence, more than any other architectural practice. The prize-winning buildings include the Lever House in New York (1952), the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University (1967) and the Banco de Occidente in Guatemala City (1981).

Owings, who will turn 80 on Feb. 5, developed special ties to Washington after he was selected by President Kennedy in 1962 to head a special Advisory Council on Pennsylvania Avenue, playing a major role in devising the first plan to rejuvenate "the nation's main street."

Owings also headed the President's Temporary Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue, formed by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, and until recently was vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. (PADC), established by Congress in 1972 with wide-ranging powers to carry out a revised Avenue plan. Owings resigned his position with PADC last January in a policy dispute with Max N. Berry, chairman of the corporation.

Owings also was closely connected to the plans for refurbishing the Mall that began to take shape in the mid-1960s. These plans eventually led to the closing of Washington and Adams drives along the Mall and to the construction of the SOM-designed Constitution Gardens, the informal park along Constitution Avenue between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, replacing the "temporary" buildings that had occupied the plot since World War I.

Among achievements he considered most significant, he listed the reflecting pool at the foot of Capitol Hill, completed in 1972, "because it looks good there and it solved an urban problem." (The pool effectively hides a depressed eight-lane freeway that would have sorely affected the Mall vista.)

"But as I get older things get clearer for me," Owings said. "The things I'm proudest of are two -- the avenue in Washington and the 72 miles along the coast here, which are now in pristine condition." He was, of course, referring to Pennsylvania Avenue and to the Big Sur coastline, where he headed a successful fight in the early 1960s to prohibit a four-lane coastal freeway and to greatly reduce residential densities then permitted by the Monterey County zoning code.

Owings, born in Indianapolis, received a bachelor of science degree from the Cornell University College of Architecture in 1927, although he later would lament that he "did in fact lack a primary education." His organizational and promotional gifts first were tested in the planning he and Skidmore did for "A Century of Progress," the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.

Owings went through a radical change of mind late in his career, disavowing skyscrapers (a building type of which SOM had designed some of the more distinguished, and highest, in the world) and making what he called "a one hundred percent change" in his attitudes concerning the early plan for Pennsylvania Avenue. This had called for widespread demolition of existing buildings along the avenue, including, among many others, the Washington and Willard Hotels.

"I feel like a reformed hunter," he quipped at a public meeting on the District's height limitation in 1971. "We should create a non-building program for all of our cities," he said at the same meeting, "and open up our spaces, get rid of the automobile in our downtown centers and encourage human activities . . . If the future is going to be anything like what we're doing today then I'm glad I'm 70 years old." Owings was 68 at the time.