Opinion: Women architects helped design American style

March is Women’s History Month, and each year I try to recognize women throughout history who have cracked the glass ceiling in fields from lighthouse keeper to inventor. This year, I’ve chosen architecture mainly because some of our most creative architects have previously been hidden behind their male partners or men for whom they worked. So I’d like to introduce you to a few women who helped to fashion the face of America (as well as other countries where their work is prominent).


Marion Mahony Griffin


Marion Mahony was born in 1871 in Chicago and graduated from M.I.T. in 1894. She was the first woman to become a licensed architect in Illinois and the first employee hired by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most famous American architects. Her paintings of buildings and landscapes helped to popularized Wright’s unique style, although she never got credit for the work. And throughout her life, her work was seen only as an extension of male architects.


After Wright died, and she had a failed marriage in Europe, Mahony teamed with Walter Burley Griffin to further develop Wright’s “Prairie School” of architecture. Her watercolors of a concept for the development of the city of Canberra won an international competition. In 1914, the couple (who had married) moved to Australia to oversee the building of Canberra, which was to become the new Australian capital. It wasn’t until a century after her death that the breadth and importance of her work was finally recognized.


Julia Morgan


Born in 1872, Julia Morgan graduated from Oakland High School in 1890 and then attended UC Berkeley where she was often the only woman in her science, math, and engineering courses. At the time, Berkeley had no architecture program, so Morgan earned her degree in civil engineering.


After graduating in 1894, she gained a year of work experience before studying for admission to the prestigious school of Beaux-Arts in Paris, which previously had not admitted women. After several failed attempts, she was finally admitted and became the first woman to earn a certificate in architecture, based on her outstanding design for a palatial theater.


Upon her return to California, she worked on several structures on the Berkeley campus, including the Hearst Mining Building, the Sather Gate, and the Hearst Greek Theater. For the next 30 years, Morgan was involved with Hearst projects, including the Los Angeles Examiner Building and her crowning jewel, Hearst Castle, overlooking San Simeon harbor.


Norma Merrick Sklarek


Nicknamed the “Rosa Parks of Architecture,” Norma Merrick was born in Harlem, NY, in 1926. Having grown up in Brooklyn, she attended Barnard College and Columbia University, where she received her degree in architecture. In 1954, she became the first African American woman to become a licensed architect in New York. In 1960, she moved to Los Angeles where she became the first female vice president of the architectural firm of Gruen and Associates. Two years later, she became the first African American woman to become a licensed architect in California. While at Gruen, she met and married Rolf Sklarek, a fellow architect.


Some of her projects at Gruen included the California Mart, San Bernardino City Hall, Fox Hills Mall, Pacific Design Center, Leo Baeck Temple, and the United States Embassy in Tokyo. Throughout her career as project director, designer, and architect, it was common for women not to be acknowledged for their work because architecture was a male-dominated field. When clients were being wooed, female associates of the architectural firm were often omitted from meetings while discussions took place.


In 1980, she left Gruen and became the first black woman to be elected as a fellow of the American Institute of Architects. At that time, she went to work for Welton Becket Associates, where she served as project manager for Terminal One Station at Los Angeles International Airport, which was completed in time for the 1984 Olympics in that city.


She formed her own firm in 1985, Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond, and worked on designing the Mall of America. Over the years, the firm bid on five major projects, winning all five commissions, an enviable record. Following her retirement in 1992, she was appointed to the California Architects Board by the Governor Pete Wilson.


Maya Lin


Her parents having immigrated from China, Maya was born in Athens, Ohio, in 1959. Fame came early to her. In 1981, when she was still an undergraduate student at Yale University, she became nationally known as the person who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Her design was one of 1,422 submissions. Lin said that her intention was to create an opening or a wound in the earth caused by the war and its many casualties. In “The Woman Who Healed America,” The Attic, 1999, she recalled, “I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, and with the passage of time, that initial violence and pain would heal.”


Although Lin has designed both private and public buildings, she is best known for her historical monuments and environmentally oriented works that address the destructive effects that human activities have on the earth. During a Vietnam War Veterans Memorial public dialogue, she said, “I’m very much a product of the growing awareness about ecology and the environmental movement… I am very drawn to landscape, and my work is about finding a balance in the landscape, respecting nature and not trying to dominate it. Even the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is an earthwork. All of my work is about slipping things in, inserting an order or a structuring, yet making an interface so that in the end, rather than a hierarchy, there is a balance and tension between the man-made and the natural.”


This has been a quick trip from women breaking into a previously male-only field to women redefining the field. I hope that it serves to show that all people have skills and talents that can contribute to the overall human experience.


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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.

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