Norma Sklarek’s list of achievements is long. From the American Embassy in Tokyo, the Fox Plaza in San Francisco, California Mart and Terminal One at Los Angeles International Airport, Sklarek’s influence is perhaps most deeply felt in the culture of designing American malls. She worked exclusively in that focus for two decades while at Green Associates, although her actual designs weren't able to see the light. This is quite simply because although she was able to pioneer as one of the first licensed African-American female architects, some clients wouldn't allow her to act as their main contact or designer. She managed and directed many of the projects at both Welton Becket Associates and the Jerde Partnership, but would not be accepted by most clients.
She was one step removed from her projects’ architectural design than Paul Williams, the first African-American male licensed as an architect, who could design houses but often wasn't legally allowed to visit the lands where he built.
Still, as only one of two women to graduate from Columbia with an architecture degree in 1950 and the first African-American woman to become an AIA Fellow in 1980, Sklarek was often referred to as the “Rosa Parks of Architecture” for glass ceilings she cracked for female African-American architects, if society wouldn't allow her to opportunity to actually break them.
In her early work, she noticed that she was “highly visible” and once would receive a reprimand for consistently being late; her boss did not speak to the white male co-worker who gave her that (tardy) ride every morning. Her solution was not to call out this behavior but to take everything into her own hands, and she bought herself a car. She took that mentality even further in 1985 when she was one of the founders of Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond, the first all woman architecture firm.
Roland Wiley, a former employee of Sklarek's, remembered in her LA Times obituary that "You didn't joke around with Norma. She was the one who got the job done, on time and with excellence, and who then went home at 5:30 to pursue her other interests." In fact, in 1984 she completed the design and construction of Terminal 1 at LAX - a $50 million undertaking - well ahead of schedule and in time for the Olympic Games to be hosted.
It is unknown exactly how many young people she encouraged to pursue their dream of architecture, but we know that representation matters. If young women can see themselves reflected in the reality of their chosen field, that may be the additional push needed to continue down the road of design and style. Without such pioneers as Normal Sklarek, we may never have seen more modern designers such as Barbara Bouza and Gabrielle Bullock - even if African-American architects sometimes are still not credited for their work.
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Photo Credit: Pioneering Woman of American Architecture