Listening to Norma Sklarek, FAIA

Almost nine years ago, way before podcasts became popular, a group of Young Architects involved in the AIA started an ambitious project to interview Fellows of the AIA on topics on mentoring. With digital voice recorders in hand, we interviewed as many architects as we could. I had the pleasure of producing all of them

We asked only three questions:

  • How did you become you?
  • Who was your mentor?
  • What was your greatest challenge?

In early 2008, Stuart Magruder, AIA interviewed Norma Sklarek, FAIA, the first African American woman licensed to practice architecture and the first elevated to the AIA College of Fellows. Author Anna Lewis calls her “The Rosa Parks of Architecture.” Below is the short, but personal interview.

Norma Sklarek, FAIA, is a pathbreaking architect. Born in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City at the tail end of the political and cultural movement known as the “Harlem Renaissance”, she quietly ignored barriers placed in the way of both African Americans and women. In this interview, she talks about how she was able to work so hard and what it was like for her in the office.

Norma Sklarek’s career as an architect has been marked by a series of firsts.  She was the first African American woman licensed in the State of New York (in 1954), the first licensed in the State of California (in 1966), and the first elevated to Fellowship (in 1980).   Educated at Columbia University in New York City, she worked in Skidmore Owings and Merrill’s New York office before coming West to Gruen Associates’ Los Angeles office.  She was that firm’s first female Director of Design, leading award winning projects such as the San Bernadino City Hall and the Fox Hills Mall.  Later she worked for Welton Becket Associates, then formed one of the largest female-owned firms in the country, Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond, and finally she worked at the Jerde Partnership also in Los Angeles.  Norma’s professional commitment has included teaching, serving in the AIA as director of the Los Angeles chapter, serving as Commissioner to the California Board of Architectural Examiners, and serving as Master Juror to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

This interview is especially valuable because Sklarek passed away in 2012. It is so important for us to remember where we have come as a profession, but also that we stand on the shoulders of others, like Sklarek who believed in the pursuit of architecture to make change.


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Emily is an Architect, Mother of 2, and Somerville, MA resident.

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