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Saluting the unsung pioneers of women in architecture

Catherine Slessor
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A comprehensive new website offers a chance to learn about little known American women architects, says Catherine Slessor

Norma merrick sklarek crop

Norma merrick sklarek crop

Source: Courtesy of Gruen Associates

Norma Merrick Sklarek

Charlotte Perriand draped over a chaise longue, Ray Eames gunning a motorbike, Denise Scott Brown hands-on-hips in Las Vegas, Zaha Hadid merging into parametric contours. Such images have come to define women in architecture. Each was a pioneer in their own way, hacking through sexist undergrowth to claim a place in history. But what of architecture’s less well-known female practitioners? Though the lone male genius model of architectural production still prevails, beyond its distracting blare, the landscape is shifting. Work goes on to discover and resituate women architects, shedding new light on their lives and achievements.

You’ve probably never heard of Norma Merrick Sklarek (pictured), a Columbia graduate, who worked for SOM in New York and Gruen Associates in Los Angeles, who in 1959 became the first African American woman to join the American Institute of Architects. Through talent and tenacity she calmly faced down the toxic cocktail of racism and sexism that underscored most of her working life.

As California’s first black woman architect, she took rides to work with a white male colleague who was consistently late. ‘It took only one week before the boss came and spoke to me about being late,’ she recalled. ‘Yet he had not noticed that the young man had been late for two years. My solution was to buy a car since I, the highly visible employee, had to be punctual.’

It was unheard of to have an African American female architect. You didn’t trot that person out in front of your clients and say: “This is the person designing your project”

Her collaboration with César Pelli produced several key late-modern buildings, including the Pacific Design Center and the US Embassy in Tokyo. According to Marshall Purnell, a former president of the American Institute of Architects, she was more than capable of designing large projects, but ‘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”.’ 

Merrick Sklarek is just one unsung practitioner to feature in a new database, Pioneering Women of American Architecture. Launched at the end of last year and edited by Mary McLeod and Victoria Rosner, the initiative profiles 50 women – architects, designers and writers – who have made important contributions to the American canon. All were born before 1940, at a time when women struggled both to be allowed entry into the architectural profession and to be recognised for their achievements. Compiled from extensive research, each entry conjures a detailed and scholarly account of their lives, works and the often unsparing tenor of their times. ‘We hope this project can move architecture created by women to the centre of architectural history’, say McLeod and Rosner, ‘as well as inviting more young women to study and practise architecture.’

While including obvious figures such as Ray Eames and Ada Louise Huxtable, many are not well known, even among architectural historians. Their work ranges in its scope and scale, from masterplanning to kitchen design. Many were important innovators and many broke barriers, challenging the institutions of architecture as well as social conventions and gender stereotypes. 

Their newly collated biographies also frame subversive perspectives on the authorised version of architectural history. Theodate Pope, one of the few women to gain professional status in the early part of the 20th century, saw the International Style exhibition at Hartford in 1932 featuring Le Corbusier’s famous ‘machines for living in’. At the time she observed that such work ‘was purely intellectual without regard to the emotions’, because ‘it ignored a basic human need’. And who could argue with Norma Merrick Sklarek’s definition of architecture: ‘It should work to improve the environment of people in their homes, 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.’

This article first appeared in the Women in Architecture issue – click here to buy a copy

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