Norma Merrick Sklarek

Part 20 of a month-long celebration of Women’s History Month 

In a trailblazing list of firsts, Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926-2012) was the first black woman to be licensed to practice architecture in the US–specifically, in the states of New York and California (1954 and 1962, respectively)–and the first to be elected a fellow fo the AIA (1980). Born in Harlem, New York, Sklarek credited her father, a physician born in the Caribbean, for teaching her carpentry skills and inspiring her interest in architecture during the Great Depression. After high school, Sklarek attended Barnard College before completing her architecture degree at Columbia in 1950 with only one other woman as a classmate in the program. Yet her credential was not enough to overcome her race, and she failed to find work in an architecture office, even after applying to nineteen of them.

Instead, she went to work for the New York Department of Public Works until 1954, when she earned her architecture license. Soon thereafter she started her rise through the administrative structure of many of the country’s biggest firms. Her roles tended to be managerial, since design leadership required client presentations, which was still seen as an unacceptable role for a black woman, as her obituary attests. In 1955, Sklarek was hired at SOM and stayed there until her move in 1960 to Los Angeles to work at Gruen and Associates. During her two decades there, she earned high rank as director, working closely with César Pelli, who was partner there 1968–1976. At Gruen, Sklarek oversaw staff, coordinated major projects including the Pacific Design Center (1975, above), San Bernardino City Hall (1972), and Embassy of the US in Tokyo (1972), each of which is credited to Pelli. Between 1980 and 1985 she worked for Welton Becket Associates, directing the construction for Terminal One at LAX, for which she was given credit as project director. In 1985 Sklarek founded a female-led firm (Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond) that found quick success. Four years later she joined Jon Jerde Partnership as principal. She specialized in commercial developments and shopping malls (like the Mall of America, 1989) until her retirement in 1992.

Xiu Zelan

Part 19 of a month-long celebration of Women’s History Month 

Born in Hunan Province, China, Xiu Zelan (1925-2016) studied engineering and architecture at the National Central University in nearby Chongqing. After her graduation in 1947, she first found work as an engineer in the local railway bureau. After moving to Taiwan three years later she designed her first independent architecture project, a new railway station at Pan-ch’iao. Its success allowed her to found her firm, Tse-ch’un Architecture, under whose banner she designed such public projects as teachers’ clubs, libraries, and schools.

Blending modern conveniences with traditional motifs, her work caught the attention of Chiang Kai-shek, then leader of the Republic of China, who had established his New Life Movement almost thirty years before commissioning a project of her in 1965. The Chung-shan building on Yang-ming-shan was designed to house official state ceremonies for the National Assembly of the Republic of China. As a symbol of modern China, the sprawling hall of over 190,000 square feet, adorned with traditional hand-crafted lighting and furniture, manifest Chiang’s nationalism in the face of domestic, Western and Japanese threats; its design was recorded on the 100 New Taiwan dollar bill (above).

In later decades and with a rising profile as one of the first women to practice architecture in Taiwan, Xiu designed internationally, including extensive work in Saudi Arabia, as well as garden cities in the Taipei suburbs (the latter with her husband, Fu Chi-k’uan).

Nina Alexandrovna Aleshina

Part 18 of a month-long celebration of Women’s History Month 

Nina Alexandrovna Aleshina (1924-2012) studied music and architecture before graduating in 1950 with her degree from the Moscow Institute of Architecture. After working for a time with an architect who was involved with big government projects in the capital like the metro and the Seven Sisters, she also engaged large civic projects, including the metro system, for which she was the chief architect from 1981-1991.

Also author of a book on the metro system, Aleshina is listed as the lead architect of nineteen specific stations, for which she provided designs and oversaw construction, beginning with the  Vorobyovy Gory station in 1959 and beyond the Chkalovskaya station of 1983 (above). While certain functional commonalities exist among them all, each remains a highly individualized design. As a group, the stations reveal a broad material palette: concrete, brick, tile, granite, aluminum, bronze, and marble of every imaginable color. Lighting systems vary from large and showy custom-made hanging lamps to sleek hidden fixtures. As a significant part of travelers’ experience, ceilings of the platform areas received special attention. Each station revealed a specific and unique aesthetic, many drawn from recognizable Soviet themes: patterns drawn from Ryazan embroidery and other folk motifs, nature scenes featuring bears and reindeer, and homages to famous Russians like the chemist whose work prefiguring the periodic table is portrayed in cast panels and a famous aviator whose namesake station features stylized welded elements, arches and pylons like wings and fuselages. In a more abstract vein, the 1979 Marksistskaya station–one of her personal favorites–was designed to convey the purity and simplicity of Marxist ideology (see it here, here, and here).

Recipient of the state medal For Labor Valor, Aleshina received prestigious awards throughout her career, including designation as Honored Architect of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, Knight of the Order of the Badge of Honour.

Urmila Eulie Chowdhury

Part 17 of a month-long celebration of Women’s History Month 

One of the first women to qualify to practice architecture in Asia, Urmila Eulie Chowdhury (1923-95) was educated broadly as a diplomat’s daughter. After to travels and studies in Japan, the United States, and Australia–where she earned a degree in architecture from the University of Sydney in 1947–she went to work as an architect for the Government of Punjab. Just four years after India’s independence, in 1951 she was swept into the vast team of local architects, headed by Drew and Fry and Le Corbusier, working on the new capital at Chandigarh. In particular, she designed the Home Science College, the Women’s Polytechnic (above), and housing for ministers. She also provided translation services for Le Corbusier, who could not understand English. Later she would complete formal translations of Corbusier’s writings into English, and write for significant professional journals like Progressive Architecture and Casabella.

Finding a niche in administration, between 1963-65 Chowdhury directed the School of Architecture in Delhi and filled increasingly significant government positions as Chief State Architect of Haryana (1970-76) and Punjab (1976-81) provinces. Member of both the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Indian Institute of Architects, she founded the French Alliance Le Corbusier of Chandigarh. Chowdhury is at the center of a very recent turn in India to reconsider its architectural history from a feminist point of view, and to seek contributions from women that have been otherwise overlooked.

Valve Pormeister

Part 16 of a month-long celebration of Women’s History Month 

One of the first women to practice architecture in Estonia, Valve Pormeister (1922-2002) gained wide recognition for her ecological approach to Nordic Modernism. After first studying landscape architecture at Tartu University and the Estonian State Art Museum, and briefly working in landscape design, she heeded the state’s need for greater numbers of architects in the post-Stalinist era and started designing buildings. Her earliest significant work was completed for the Estonian Agricultural Project (Eesti Põllumajandusprojekt), a state design institute, in rural areas. Pormeister’s first project was a segue way between her professions: an exhibition building in Tallinn called the Flower Pavilion (1960). Modernist in spirit, it was amenable to the rolling landscape in its tiered form stepping up the hill and use of natural materials like local stone. Potentially inspired by Finnish modernism, it led to similar garden pavilions, and then to bigger projects still tied to the earth in functional, as well as formal, ways, each of which tended toward accommodating both modernist and regionalist tendencies: a Botanic Garden (Talinn, 1963), the Kurtna Poultry Farm (1966, above), Estonian Research and Land Reclamation Research Institute pavilion (Saku, 1969), Plant Protection Center (Saku, 1975), a State Farm Technical School (Jäneda, 1975), breeding and veterinary buildings for livestock (Saku, 1977), a state farm canteen (Audru, 1978), the Institute of Cattle Breeding and Veterinary Science (near Tartu, 1984) and an addition for the Estonian Academy of Agriculture (Tartu, 1984).

Pormeister’s talents in architectural and landscape design were recognized through several state awards presented by Estonia and the Soviet SSR. On the occasion of her 50th birthday in 1972, she became the first architect in Soviet Estonia to hold a personal exhibition that, housed in the Flower Pavilion, which was complimented by a flower exhibition of her own design. Her work has been the object of great interest in the preservation movement of modernist architecture; two of her works have been listed as national monuments (the Flower Pavilion in 1997 and the Poultry Farm building and landscape in 2001).

Margaret Staal-Kropholler

Part 7 of a month-long celebration of Women’s History Month 

Margaret Staal-Kropholler (1891-1966), like many of the first women in architecture, had no option to study in a formal setting.  But she did have the good luck of having a brother in practice. Staal-Kropholler worked at her brother’s firm, Kropholler en Staal, while attending classes where she could gain admittance as a women: an Arts and Crafts school in Haarlem and evening classes in at the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture. She gained a bigger profile in the firm after what must have been tense personal dynamics that led to the departure of her brother, Kropholler, from the firm, and her subsequent marriage to Staal. Working as a partner in the firm, Staal-Kropholler revealed the influence of Arts and Crafts training and thinking through her focus on designs for furniture and other decorative arts, as well as the approach she took to improving the domestic interior both in form and function. In 1913 she created the exhibition Het Huis 1913 for a women’s exhibition in Amsterdam, in which modern domestic amenities made housekeeping more efficient while reserved writing areas served the husband’s and wife’s assumed volunteerism. Echoing in her work for decades, such concerns were not as revolutionary as they might first seem, since her interest in keeping women from “degenerating into overworked, irritable aprons” was as much to save the nerves of husband and children as much as the wife. (It is notable, of course, that the traditional family is assumed in her work). Staal-Kropholler continued to express her ideas on the domestic realm in lectures, articles, and her built work, right through to her final project. Completed independently (as she worked alone after the death of Staal in 1940), the large complex of 170 units serving professional single women was designed and built between 1959-1963 in the Netherlands. Its strict modernism shows the variance of style that characterize the arc of her career. An early project in 1917, three “boerderettes” (small houses emulating traditional farm buildings) bore a strong vernacular expression that develoeed into the roots of the Amsterdam School; she embraced this  local trend in the 1921 housing project in Holendrechtstraat, Amsterdam (above). Like much of her work in the many decades that she practiced, it shows the necessary dependence–if not, perhaps, preference–for group projects among early female practitioners clearing a professional path in a conservative country.



Lily Isabel Maude Addison


Part 6 of a month-long celebration of Women’s History Month 

Lily Isabel Maude Addison (1885–1968) was working as a draftsperson in 1908, after which she sought educational experience in building construction and architectural history from the Brisbane Central Technical College. Daughter of George Henry Male Addison, founder of the office G.H.M. Addison & Son, she apparently made some contributions to the firm’s work that are difficult to parse from those of her brother and father. (It is possible that she contributed to the Ithaca Town Council Chambers in Enoggera Terrace dated 1920, above). Although her record is sparse, it includes a few significant developments including her admittance as the first woman to join the Queensland Institute of Architects in 1916. Her appearance here is significant as it shows a woman joining a significant professional body just as the national methods for professional recognition were coming into shape in Australia: the Australian Institute of Architects was founded only in 1929 and it was another decade before the Architects Registration Bill passed. Referring to herself as architect at least from 1922, Addison was among the first of about 100 women (other notables including Muriel Stott, Beatrice Hutton, and Elina Mottram) who practised professionally in Australia in the first half of the twentieth century.

Ella Briggs

0Part 5 of a month-long celebration of Women’s History Month 

Ella Briggs (1880 – 20 June 1977) born in Vienna, then part of the German Empire. In spite of its progressive reputation, the art scene in Vienna was strictly traditional when it came to gender roles, as a reflection of broader social trends: women artists were not allowed to take part in the fin-de-siecle “Ver Sacrum,” nor the structure of the Secession, nor the Hagenbund, nor the older Künstlerhaus. In 1897 the Viennese Kunstschule für Frauen und Mädchen was established to provide education for women who were welcome in few other places. Briggs pursued training in painting at the Viennese Women’s Employment Association and the University of Applied Arts, and then looked far afield to actually begin a career. Moving to the United States between 1903-1916, she worked as an interior designer before returning to Europe to study structural engineering in Salzburg and architecture at the Technical University in Munich. By 1921 she was the first woman to join the Austrian Engineers and Architects Association and the first woman to work as an architect in Austria. In the next years she established herself as an architect of vast residential complexes, completing the Pestalozzihof (above) and Ledigenheim in Vienna, and later Berlin, until 1933. As a Jew, she returned to Vienna for three years before emigrating to England, where she again took up projects for housing cooperatives. Having successfully escaped the Nazis, she worked as a naturalised British citizen from her office in London to the end of her life.

Jelisaveta Načić

0Part 4 of a month-long celebration of Women’s History Month 

Jelisaveta Načić (1878-1955) was the first woman to graduate from the architecture program at the University of Belgrade, which opened only in 1896. Her attendance at college was highly unusual in a country where the vast majority of women were not formally educated at all, let alone in a profession. As part of the inaugural class of Serbian architects, she was among those forging architectural education and practice in the nation. She joined several classmates in the newly-renamed Serbian Association of Engineers and Architects, which grew from the older Union of Engineers and Technicians of Serbia. However, unlike her peers, she was unable to earn a place at the Ministry of Construction due to its requirement for military service, from which she was blocked as a woman. Instead, Načić went to work for the municipal government, eventually becoming its first chief architect. Her third-place finish in a 1903 competition for a church in Topola helped further to establish her in the profession and attracted private commissions for apartments and private residences. More important independent and public work followed, including the 1906 Kralj Petar I (King Peter I) school, notable for its Renaissance style and modernist concerns for hygiene and natural and electrical lighting, heating and plumbing. Her Workers’ Housing Complex from 1910-1911, designed in a vernacular mode, was an early experiment in modern residential planning in the Balkans, as was a tuberculosis sanitorium, the first of its kind in Serbia.

Her vibrant career of just sixteen years–especially considering the odds against her–was cut short by the outbreak of war. Her work to redesign Terazije, the central square in the Serbian capital, was interrupted in 1914 while the Alexander Nevsky Church in Belgrade begun in 1912 was likewise left incomplete,  finished only in 1929 by other architects. Her TB sanitorium was a complete loss. Načić herself was taken to a camp in Hungary, retiring after her release in Dubrovnik. Today, her work is receiving well-earned attention: in 2004 a street opposite her workers’ housing complex was named in her honor.