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Legacy: A Pioneering African-American Architect

She was the first African-American woman to become a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and worked with Frank Gehry, and Cesar Pelli. Here's the legacy of Norma Merrick Sklarek.

The Long View Norma Merrick Sklarek in the 1970s

Architecture's stars—Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, and Cesar Pelli among them—are the designers. But after their grand schemes for innovative structures have been sold to clients, it is left to the production architects to turn ideas into reality.

Norma Merrick Sklarek, the first African American woman to become a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a founder of one of the largest women-owned firms in the business, was a pioneering production architect. Working with Pelli at Gruen Associates in Los Angeles during the 1960s and '70s, Sklarek headed that firm's production department and was responsible for the actual building of landmark projects that included the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the Pacific Design Center, better known as the Blue Whale, a massive, Modernist home to design and furniture showrooms in West Hollywood. At another firm, Sklarek oversaw the building of the airy Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport, and she had a reputation for delivering complex buildings on time and under budget.

"Norma was a spectacular technical architect," says Kate Diamond, who teamed with Sklarek and Margot Siegel in 1985 to form Siegel Sklarek Diamond. "She could see three-dimensionally-understanding how things fit together." This was well before software programs made 3-D modeling a snap.

Sklarek died February 6 of heart failure. She was 85.

Sklarek grew up in Harlem, attended Columbia University, and was licensed as an architect in 1954. "My mom in the 1960s and in the early '70s—before civil rights had really taken hold—had moved up at Gruen," says her son, David Merrick Fairweather. "She was hiring and firing, many of them white males. Imagine that. It was before the term affirmative action was in use."

Launching their Los Angeles firm in 1985, Sklarek, Siegel, and Diamond made proposals on five projects—and won all five commissions, an unheard-of batting average. Their staff quickly ballooned to 20. For one project, the client had doubts about the firm's ability to handle the scope of the work. "We took them to LAX Terminal 1," Diamond says. "Norma's project."

Sklarek was beyond rigorous in her work—she was legendarily strict about punctuality—and proud of her role. "She would tell you design was the easy part," says Fairweather. "She would make it real. What kind of concrete. What kind of nuts and bolts. What kind of glass. She was in production, and she would tell you production was the real work."

With Sklarek's big-project experience, Siegel Sklarek Diamond had projects valued at as much as $50 million under way at one time, Siegel recalls. But the relatively small firm couldn't land the megaprojects Sklarek most enjoyed overseeing, and she left the partnership after three years to join a larger firm. She left behind the world of entrepreneurship, but in a sense, her entire career had been an act of entrepreneurship.

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