We started our Architect Spotlight series not only as a way to share our favorite works of architecture with you all, but also as a way to educate ourselves about the history of American architecture. We've noticed an unfortunate gap in our knowledge of architecture in our country that excludes Black voices, and we've been working to familiarize ourselves with the groundbreaking Black architects who have contributed to the story of architecture as a whole.
Today, we're talking about Norma Merrick Sklarek, the Harlem-born architect who is often called the “Rosa Parks of architecture.” She overcame prejudices against both her race and her gender to become an architect, gaining prominence and becoming known as one of the leading voices in the architecture world.
Norma was born in Harlem in 1926, the daughter of Trinidadian immigrants. In high school, she excelled in both math and fine arts, which prompted her father to encourage her to become an architect. Norma went on to Barnard College solely to gain the necessary one-year liberal arts education required to attend the School of Architecture at Columbia University.
At her graduation, Norma was one of only two women, and the only Black student in her entire class. She gained her B.Arch. from Columbia in 1950, though she would go on to face discrimination while searching for a job. After being rejected by a staggering nineteen firms, Norma instead took a job junior draftsperson in the City of New York’s Department of Public Works.
In 1954, in hopes of bettering her skillset in the eyes of potential architecture firms, Norma took the architecture licensing examination; she passed on the first try and became the very first licensed Black female architect in the state of New York. While she was able to secure a position at an architectural firm, she frequently faced discrimination and was assigned only menial tasks.
In 1955, Norma went on to work for the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where she finally began working on larger-scale projects. Now a single mother of two, Norma also began teaching architecture courses at New York City Community College in the evening. Her perseverance earned her a place as the very first Black female member of the American Institute of Architects.
In 1960, Norma moved to Los Angeles to be closer to one of her sons. She began working at the firm Gruen Associates, and in 1962, she became the first Black woman licensed as an architect in California.
Her achievements were already incredible, despite prejudices and lack of opportunity, and during her time at Gruen Associates Norma was able to rise to become the Director of Architecture. She oversaw much of the company's hiring, as well as major projects like the California Mart, Fox Plaza, Pacific Design Center, San Bernardino City Hall, and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.
U.S. Embassy in Tokyo
At the time, many female architects were left uncredited on the projects they designed; instead, Norma served as the project manager rather than the architect for many of her most prestigious jobs. Despite the behind-the-scenes nature of her architecture career, Norma worked at Gruen for over twenty years, and while she wasn't one of the faces of the company, she was certainly one of the most important and influential members of their team.
Norma went on to become vice president of the LA firm Welton Becket Associates, where she spearheaded the design of Terminal One at Los Angeles International Airport. In 1985, she co-founded the firm Siegel Sklarek Diamond with two other women, becoming the first Black woman to co-own an architectural practice. Later in her career, she joined the Jerde Partnership, where she worked on the Mall of America.
Pacific Design Center
After retiring, Norma served on the board of various architectural committees and was awarded many prestigious honors. Because she had no one to look up to during her education and early years as an architect, she mentored many young minority and women architects in hopes that they would gain the advice and guidance she didn't have access to.
"Architecture should be working on improving the environment of people in their homes, in their places of work, and their places of recreation. It should be functional and pleasant, not just in the image of the ego of the architect.”
-Norma Merrick Sklarek