Studio Blog

Black History Month Feature: Norma Sklarek and the “Blue Whale” at the Pacific Design Center

February 5, 2020

In honor of Black History Month, I’d like to take the time to shed light on a pioneering figure for black and female architects alike: Norma Merrick Sklarek.

Norma Merrick Sklarek was born in Harlem, New York on April 15, 1926. The daughter of immigrants from Trinidad, she was raised to value education and never let anyone get in the way of her dreams. She attended the School of Architecture at Colombia University, just one of two women and the only African-American in her class to earn a Bachelor of Architecture in 1950.
In 1954, she passed the architecture licensing examination on her first attempt, becoming the first African-American woman to be licensed as an architect in New York. 8 years later, after moving to Los Angeles, she became the first to do it in California, a reflection of her tenacity and ambition.

Norma Merrick Sklarek

Sklarek found major success after moving to Los Angeles and working for Gruen Associates and acclaimed architect Cesar Pelli. Sklarek and Pelli collaborated to produce some of the most notable buildings in the world, including the San Bernardino City Hall, U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, and Pacific Design Center. The last of which, Coates Design architect Rick Ledford got the pleasure of visiting.

As a black woman, it was hard to be a design architect simply for the fact that firms didn’t want to march out a black woman to their clients. Though she is credited as a design architect along with Cesar Pelli on the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, she took much more pride in being a part of the production side of things. For many famous projects, Sklarek served as a sort of bridge between the designs of Cesar Pelli to the production happening on the ground. As I walked around the “Blue Whale” building, one of three structures that make up the Pacific Design Center, I thought about the sheer manpower it took to produce such a behemoth and the intellect that it requires to take the dream-like designs of Pelli and bring them to life.
Norma, you are a true inspiration, and I thank you for all that you have done for the practice of architecture.

Here are some photographs from Rick’s visits to the Blue Whale at the Pacific Design Center (He first went as an architecture student living in Southern California in 1975 and returned in 2010):