From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Norma Merrick Sklarek was broadcast on the 6th August 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Architecture is a man’s profession. That’s what a young African American girl in Harlem, New York, grew up thinking. But Norma Merrick would soon prove she could be a top-tier architect and in doing so, would become a pioneering figure in the history of American architecture. Born in 1926, she was taught practical skills like carpentry and painting by her father. Her resilience was put to the test when she started high school in a neighbouring borough. Unlike the Harlem school she had attended previously, her new school was 98% white. She was soon aware that many of her peers, and even the teachers, dismissed her as inferior and that gave her the determination to show them that she could be as successful as anyone else. Given her aptitude for maths and an interest in art, her father suggested that she study architecture, and she eventually entered Columbia university as one of only two women in the architecture department, and the only African American. Again, she faced discrimination, noticing how her fellow undergraduates often collaborated on projects whereas she was left to work alone. When she graduated in 1950, she was rejected by nineteen architectural firms, she was unsure whether it was because of her gender or her skin colour. She would eventually work at New York’s Department of Public Works as a draftsperson. While there she became the first licensed female African American architect in New York State.
A break came when she moved to the famous New York firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, also becoming the first female African American member of the American Institute of Architecture. After five years there, in 1960 she moved to Gruen Associates in California, becoming the State’s first black female licensed architect. It was there that she met her husband, fellow architect Rolf Sklarek, and took his name. She quickly rose to become the director of architecture where she oversaw important projects, such as the Pacific Design Center in 1974, often called the Blue Whale, and usually attributed only to star architect César Pelli, as well as the crisply geometric American embassy in Tokyo completed two years later. By 1980, she had been appointed a fellow of the American Institute of Architects. She left Gruen for a smaller firm where she oversaw the design of a new terminal for Los Angeles airport, a key building needed for the crowds coming to the city’s 1984 Olympics. She had to endure scepticism from other architects who doubted a woman was up to the task. ‘Mine was the only one on schedule,’ she proudly recounted later.
Norma Sklarek died in 2012 and the breadth of her legacy is only now becoming more widely known. She mightn’t have been the first black female architect registered in America but there were only two before her, in 1936 and 1942. Her career is filled with countless other firsts, including co-founding the first all-female run architectural firm in America in 1985. Her resilience and tenacity made her an inspiring mentor not just for black women in the profession but for women in general. Sadly her story doesn’t belong to history and that everything is now changed. It’s still common that a black woman might not be chosen to represent a large company or present a new project and for a professional woman’s name to be somehow omitted or her role downplayed when there is the presence of other, more famous male names. Despite so much discrimination throughout her life, Sklarek is important for the changes she inspired, as much as her fine contribution to architecture in general. It’s little wonder that she’s often called the Rosa Parks of architecture. An American star whose light is still needed throughout the world.