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Norma Merrick Sklarek dies

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Norma Merrick Sklarek, the first African-American woman in the US to become a licensed architect has died of heart failure at the age of 85

Sklarek was one of only two women to graduate with a degree in architecture from Columbia University in 1950. She started applying for jobs but was turned down 19 times before being hired by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in 1955.

In her career she had to face discrimination on the basis of both her race and her gender. In an interview in 2004 she spoke of her difficulty in getting her first job after graduating and said: ‘They weren’t hiring women or African-Americans, and I didn’t know which it was [that worked against me].’

She often took a supervisory role in projects rather than designing them, due to clients not wanting to hire a black female architect. Marshall Purnell, a past president of the American Institute of Architects said that in the 1950s ‘it was unheard of to have an African American female who was registered as an architect. You didn’t trot that person out in front of your clients and say: “This is the person designing your project”. She was not allowed to express herself as a designer. But she was capable of doing anything. She was the complete architect.’

In 1960 she joined Gruen Associates, where she worked for 20 years on a number of high-profile projects including the US Embassy in Tokyo and San Bernardino City Hall, and in 1966 she became the first black woman to be elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects. In 1980 she joined Welton Becket Associates as project director for the domestic passenger terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.

She became a founding partner of Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond, one of the largest all-women architectural practices in the US in 1985, before joining Jerde Partnership in 1989 where she worked until her retirement in 1991.

Angela Brady, president of the RIBA said: ‘It is with great sadness to hear of the passing of Norma Merrick Sklarek. She was a pioneering architect who met and overcame many challenges to enter, remain and progress in our profession.’

She added: ‘Norma’s life will remain one of inspiration, courage and determination to succeed against the odds and will continue to act as an inspiration to all those who still face discrimination because of their gender or the colour of their skin.’

The AJ Women in Architecture Awards seek to celebrate and promote the role of women in practice in the UK, through the Jane Drew prize for candidates (male or female) who have helped to raise the profile of women in practice, or through the prizes for Woman Architect of the Year or Emerging Woman Architect of the Year which celebrate the work of female architects currently in practice.

For more information, please visit our Women in Architecture Awards page.

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