August 19, 2020, 6:08 pm
Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926-2012), often referred to as the “Rosa Parks of architecture,” was a trailblazer for black women in architecture. She was not only the first black woman to be licensed as an architect in New York, but was also the first in California. She was the first black woman to gain membership in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and later became that Institute’s first black female Fellow. In 1985, she became the first black woman to co-own an architecture firm (Siegel Sklarek Diamond), which was, for its time, the nation’s largest women-owned architecture firm.
It took her five years to land a position worthy of her talents at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Here she was given more responsibility on larger-scale projects. During this time, she also began teaching architecture courses at NYC Community College. Then, in 1960, she moved to Los Angeles where she began work at Gruen Associates.
Thoughout her twenty-year stint at Gruen, Sklarek faced extra scrutiny as the only black woman at the firm. Her work, however, spoke for itself and she rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Gruen’s Director of Architecture. In this role Sklarek oversaw major projects such as the California Mart and the Fox Plaza – a building made famous as the Nakatomi Plaza in the 1988 film Die Hard.
In her collaborations with fellow Gruen-architect Cesar Pelli, Skarlek helped design and oversaw the construction of the US Embassy in Tokyo, the San Bernardino City Hall, as well as the Pacific Design Center – one of Los Angeles’ great, iconic structures.
Throughout all this, Sklarek still found time to teach Architecture at both UCLA and USC.
Following her time at Gruen, Sklarek took on a VP role at Welton Becket Associates, where she was lead the $50-millon design and construction of LAX’s Terminal One. She then founded Siegel Sklarek Diamond, whose projects included the Tarzana Promenade, a remodel of the Lawndale Civic Center, among many other commercial and institutional buildings.
Dissatisfied with the scope of projects Siegel Sklarek and Diamond was able to secure, Sklarek left her firm after a few years to join the Jerde Partnership where she worked on the Mall of America.
Though she retired her practice in 1992, Sklarek continued her focus on educating and mentoring younger women and POC architects throughout the rest of her life. “In architecture, I had absolutely no role model. I’m happy today to be a role model for others that follow.”
She served as a lecturer at Columbia University, as well as at Howard University, which, to this day offers the Norma Merrick Sklarek Architectural Scholarship Award to aspiring architects of color. She also served on a number of boards and committees such as the California Architects Board, and the AIA National Ethics Council, and as the director of both the USC Architects Guild and the Los Angeles AIA.
Sklarek died in her home in Pacific Palisades in 2012 at the age of 85, but not before being awarded the Whitney M Young Jr. Award by the AIA in recognition of her “embodiment of the profession’s responsibility to address social issues.” Her legacy lives on in her many architectural works, and in the generation of architects of color she inspired and fostered.