top of page
  • Staff

Zaha Hadid and Norma Merrick Sklarek Were Badass Female Architects Who Shattered the Glass Ceiling

Zaha Hadid in Heydar Aliyev Cultural center in Baku (2013) | Credit Dmitry Ternovoy
Zaha Hadid in Heydar Aliyev Cultural center in Baku (2013) | Credit Dmitry Ternovoy

Badass Female Architect Dame Zaha Hadid (1950 - 2016)

Born in Baghdad, the Iraqi-British architect is known and admired for her radical deconstructivist designs.

The creative began her studies at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, and received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She relocated to London in 1972, then considered a major center for progressive architecture, to study at the Architectural Association where Hadid would meet and eventually work with Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas at the Office of Metropolitan Architecture. She established her own London-based firm, Zaha Hadid Architects in 1979.

Hadid gained international recognition just four years later, thanks to her competition-winning entry for The Peak, a leisure and recreational center in Hong Kong. For it, she designed a “horizontal skyscraper” that moved at a dynamic diagonal down the hillside site. Though it was never built, the design was inspired by Futurism, and Kazimir Malevich and the Suprematists in particular. By the time the “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition was held at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in 1988, she was one of the leading figures of the movement.

Despite her seeming success, Hadid became known as a “paper architect,” since most of her designs were too complex to actually be built. Having her creations regularly displayed in museums only contributed to this title. She finally got a chance to see one of her designs constructed in 1993, when the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, was built. It was made up of a series of sharply angled planes to create a structure that resembled birds in flight.

But her true claim to fame came in 2000, thanks to her design of the new Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. The 85,000-square-foot structure, a vertical series of cubes and voids, was the first American museum designed by a woman. The street-facing side has a translucent glass facade that invites passersby to look in on the workings of the museum. Hadid said she hoped this would create an “urban carpet” that welcomes people into the museum.

Although Hadid made a career in an industry dominated by men, she became the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004. Similarly, her design for the cultural Heydar Aliyev Center (that opened in 2012) in Baku, Azerbaijan, won the London Design Museum’s Design of the Year in 2014, making her the first woman to earn that award.

But Hadid’s career was not without controversy; her designs were often derided, and the expense and scale of many of her commissions were frequently ridiculed. Still, Hadid fought back and continued cementing her legacy, one design at a time.

Aside from architecture, she loved to teach, and lectured on architecture in several colleges, including the Architectural Association, Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and Yale University. She also designed furniture, jewelry, footwear, bags, stage sets and interior spaces, much like the Futurists who inspired her work.

Her sudden passing from a heart attack while being treated for bronchitis in 2016 shocked the world, as Hadid was seemingly healthy and was working on a number of unfinished projects when she met her untimely demise. Her business partner, Patrik Schumacher, who now leads her firm, assured the completion of existing commissions and the procurement of new ones. And as such, her legacy lives on.

Norma Sklarek  (1977) | Credit Wiki
Norma Sklarek (1977) | Credit Wiki

Badass Female Architect Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926 – 2012)

In 1980, the Harlem-born designer became the first Black woman member and esteemed fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a highly respected architectural professional organization.

The groundbreaking creative was raised by Trinidadi immigrants who came to America as part of the first significant Caribbean immigration wave in the early 20th century. Merrick would grow up to attend the prestigious Hunter College High School for the intellectually gifted and "Ivy League-bound" young women in 1940.

She thrived academically and eventually attended Barnard University, the prestigious women's college formerly administered by Columbia University, with the goal of then attending the Columbia University School of Architecture; she received her Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1950, making her one of only two women, and the only African American, in her graduating class.

Despite this, race and gender were barriers in her chosen profession, hence she had a difficult time finding employment. She was finally hired as a junior draftsperson at the Department of Public Works (DPW) in New York City. She also passed her architecture licensing exam in 1954, which made her the first black woman to hold this license in the state.

But Merrick felt stifled and bored at the organization, so she left to do some rendering coloring work with notable New York architect, Bob Schwartz. The job opened more doors and, in 1955, she started working at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM), a respectable architectural firm where she was given larger-scale projects.

In 1960, Merrick moved to Los Angeles, California, in an effort to advance her career. She took a job at the architectural firm Gruen Associates, founded by renowned Austrian architect Victor Gruen (1903 - 1980), which specialized in shopping malls and multi-use buildings. Merrick also became the first Black woman to be a licensed architect in the state.

Five years later, she was promoted to director of architecture and made was responsible for hiring and overseeing multiple staff members as well as serving as project manager on several high-profile projects for the firm, which included the California Market Center (1963), the San Francisco skyscraper Fox Plaza (1966), and The Pacific Design Center (1975). She was also credited with assisting on other major projects for the firm.

In 1980, she departed Gruen for Welton Becket & Associates, a prominent California firm renowned for their iconic music and cultural centers, including the famous Capitol Records building in Los Angeles. Merrick was made vice president of the firm and lead project manager on one of her most notable works, Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport, which she completed as preparation for the influx of travelers to L.A. for the 1984 Olympic Games.

In 1985, Merrick became the first African American woman to found and co-own a woman-led architectural firm. Using her marital name Sklarek, she collaborated with veteran architects Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond to create Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond (SSD), which became one of the largest woman-owned architecture firms at the time. Their biggest projects were the Tarzana Promenade, a 90,000 sq. ft. medical and retail center, and the remodel and renovation of the Lawndale Civic Center. Both are located in California.

In 1992, Merrick retired from the profession but did not resign herself to stop working. Instead, she became an active advocate in broadening the profession to include more women and people of color. Over the years, she served as faculty and lecturer at several universities including UCLA, where she became the first African American faculty member, USC, University of Iowa, Kansas State University, California Polytechnic as well as her alma mater Columbia University. She also lectured at Howard University, Hampton University, Tuskegee University, and Southern University.

Merrick’s work was recorded and recognized by the black press and publishers, such as her being included in Ebony magazine as early as 1958, in their article on "Successful Young Architects." In 2008, the AIA awarded her with the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award that recognizes architects who represented the profession's responsibility to address social issues.

Throughout this time, she got married and divorced, married and divorced again, married once more and then widowed. She raised two sons and depended on the assistance of her family to help out when she was working to advance her career. She died in 2012, in the Pacific Palisades, California, at the age of 85, but the work she left behind endures.

So, there you have it, two badass female architects.


bottom of page