Today we are going to explore architecture with kids by learning about the remarkable career of architect Norma Merrick Sklarek and one of her most famous projects, the “Blue Whale.” After exploring her career I have a project for you to try with your kids or students inspired by her work.
My background is as an architect, a profession I enjoyed before starting to work with kids. It’s also a profession that historically has been dominated by men. In my lifetime much has changed, when I went to architectural school in the 1990s it was 50% female, and women and architects of color are starting to gain momentum and recognition in the field.
And yet there is still so much to be done before the architecture and the construction industries become equally represented by women and people of color. And that is what makes the architect I am featuring in today’s post even more remarkable.
Meet Norma Merrick Sklarek
Norma Merrick Sklarek who was born in 1926, was a trailblazer for architects of color and women architects. Like many Black women, her contributions were not widely recognized until later in her career and even after her passing in 2012. I have only recently learned about her impact on the field of architecture and the landscape of my hometown of Los Angeles and I am excited to share her life and legacy with you here.
Norma Merrick Sklarek was the first African American woman member and Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. She graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture from Columbia University in 1950 and was one of only two women and the only African American in her class. After working in New York for 10 years she moved to Los Angeles in 1960.
She was the project/production architect at several large architectural firms in Los Angeles including Victor Gruen Associates, Welton Beckett Associates, and the Jerde Partnership. She also partnered with Cesar Pelli as the production architect on four major projects (completed while both worked at Victor Gruen Associates) including the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo (she was also the design architect on this project), the Pacific Design Center AKA “The Blue Whale,” San Bernadino City Hall, and the Columbus Courthouse Center in Indiana. In recent years her contribution to these projects is being properly attributed.
Other notable projects she worked on during her long career include the Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport, completed in time for the 1984 Olympic games, and the Mall of America. In the 1980’s she opened the largest female owned architecture firm in the country at that time.
As one of the few Black female architects in the profession during much of her career she was a mentor for women architects and architects of color. I particularly love this video of her speaking about her thoughts on being awarded the title of AIA Fellow:
Here are some great articles on Norma Merrick Sklarek’s life:
- Norma Merrick Sklarek: A Gentle and Indomitable Force
- Pioneering Women of Architecture: Norma Merrick Sklarek
- Barrier-Breaking African American Architects We Should Be Celebrating
About the Blue Whale
The Pacific Design Center is a complex of three buildings which were completed over a several decades with the first blue building completed in 1975 , the Green building in 1988, and the Red building in 2011. The work is typically credited to Cesar Pelli but in recent years Norma Merrick Skalerek’s name has been added alongside his name, recognizing her enormous contribution as production architect for the Blue building. When the Blue building was constructed in 1975 it was nicknamed the “The Blue Whale” because of its size compared to the rest of the neighborhood where it resides, and of course because of its bright blue facade.
It is an example of late modern design where big, bold geometric forms were paired with sleek glass exteriors. A common design feature of buildings of this era featured pulling out elements like elevator and stair towers and making them featured parts of the design. You can see more images of the Blue Whale here on Victor Gruen Associates website. You can read more about the complex and it’s architectural significance here on the Los Angeles Conservancy website.
Architecture Project for Kids
- Cardboard tubes (TP or paper towel)
- Cardboard pieces (cut into a vareity of smaller pieces)
- Cardboard egg cartons
- Start with the first floor
Add paper tube columns to a piece of cardboard. Glue in place.
- Add more floors
Alternate columns/structure with cardboard floors.
- Add walls
Use cardboard pieces or egg cartons to make the sides of the building.
- Add geometric elements
The “Blue Whale” has a distinctive geometry. Make sure to add a signature curve at the top or a stair/elevator tower on the side. Add stairs or ramps of desired.
- Paint it!
The Blue Whale has a signature color so give your building one too! Watercolor works well on cardboard.
That’s it! Make more or make these in a class and create your own mini city!
Here are some images of our students’ creations from a Zoom workshop I recently did for our school’s Black History Month celebrations. Aren’t they amazing?!
I hope you enjoyed this simple architecture project based on architect Norma Merrick Slakrek! If your kids enjoyed this, check out these three paper architecture projects:
Also join me back here for more STEAM projects on inspiring artists, designers, engineers, scientists, and architects!