Norma Sklarek: A Design Pioneer

“In architecture, I had absolutely no role model. I’m happy today to be a role model for others that follow.”- Norma Sklarek, FAIA

I just saw on the Wall Street Journal that Norma Merrick Sklarek has died.   She was lovingly known as the “Rosa Parks of Architecture”. There are no words to describe what a loss this is for me. Ms. Sklarek was the underlying inspiration that would eventually lead to my frustrations which birthed All Black Everything. In 2004, I was a fresh Architecture student, confronting my feelings about being the ONLY black female in my class, and one of less than a handful in the whole architecture building daily. One day, my routine trolling the internet for new design inspiration, I came across an article about Norma Sklarek in a Southern newspaper. Here she was… an ARCHITECT who looked like me. I was so excited, I wanted to tell everyone I knew. Except no one had heard of her.

Not only did this shock me, because she was licensed, making her the first black female AIA Fellow (for those outside of architecture, this is the highest professional honor and not an easy process), but she also owned the first black female led architecture firm in the US, and worked for prestigious firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Gruen & Associates.  She was the first black architect I ever discovered.  For those unfamiliar with her work, look up the American Embassy in Tokyo and Terminal One at Los Angeles International Airport.

Sklarek with Marshall Purnell at her 2008 AIA Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award Ceremony.

Later in my academic career, I attempted to bring Ms. Sklarek to lecture at our University. Unfortunately due to inclement weather, the event was cancelled and we were unable to find a suitable date on the schedule. But even from speaking on the phone and via email, her energy was infectious. I remember her excitement in telling my friends and I that she was looking forward to meeting with us told us a little snow wouldn’t stop her annual pastime of walking the Brooklyn Bridge with her sister. Even in those limited interactions, she made us feel like extended members of her family; accepted. For a black architecture student, this feeling is not commonplace.

A pioneer and inspiration to architects everywhere, she truly showed that with hard work, passion, and dedication all barriers can be broken and anyone will excel if they are excellent at what they do. I am proud to be able to follow in her footsteps.

Rest In Peace, Norma Merrick Sklarek, FAIA  (4/15/1926- 2/6/2012).

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About Tya W.

Tya Winn: architect, urbanist, designer, cultural connoisseur, and the next great thing! View all posts by Tya W.

One response to “Norma Sklarek: A Design Pioneer

  • David Fairweather

    Thank you for your very nice article about my mother. Her Memorial will be held March 4 in Pacific Palisades, CA. If you would like an invitation please send me an email with your postal address.

    Thanks again.

    David F.

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