Education: Barnard College, Columbia University School of Architecture
Norma was an iconic woman of firsts. She was the first licensed black architect in the states of New York in 1954, California, and in the United States. After working for several major firms, Sklarek became the first black woman to receive a fellowship from the American Institute of Architects. In 1985, she helped form an all-female architectural firm, becoming the first African-American woman to establish and manage an architectural firm. Norma’s love of architecture was founded at a young age in her passion for art, the sciences and math. When she was older, she decided to transfer and was accepted to Columbia University’s School of Architecture after a year at Barnard College. This was an accomplishment all on its own considering that at the time, Columbia only accepted a select few women each year. Still, Norma thrived at the school, eventually shocking school administrators by passing her final licensing exam on her first try.
Despite this track record, she did not initially design most of the huge projects she supervised, “not because she wasn’t capable,” Marshall Purnell (past president of the American Institute of Architects) noted, but because when she started out in the 1950s “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.’ She was not allowed to express herself as a designer. But she was capable of doing anything. She was the complete architect.” SHe eventually did work for various big name firms, such as SOM and Gruen Associates. Eventually Sklarek made history yet again in 1985, when she teamed up with two female architects to form one of the largest female-owned architectural firms in the country—Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond—becoming the first African-American woman to establish and manage an architectural firm.
For any project that Norma committed herself to, she was beyond rigorous in her work 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.” That same level of dedication was seen in her academic pursuits and accolades. In addition to teaching several graduate courses at colleges such as UCLA, Columbia and Arizona State, she’s authored several pieces, including “Women in Architecture” for the Encyclopedia of Architecture & Construction. Sklarek also chaired the AIA National Ethics Council. in addition, Howard University has an architecture scholarship in her name, and in 2008 Sklarek was honored with the Whitney Young Jr. Award at the AIA National Convention in Boston. The recognition is given to one architect annually who best exemplifies “the profession’s responsibility toward current social issues.”