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A Diamond in Architecture --Old Problems, New Ideas

September 13, 1988|LEON WHITESON

There are times when architect Kate Diamond wonders whether women architects are doomed to be limited to small-scale projects focusing primarily on families and children.

"I like to do buildings with a strong social content," said Diamond, 34, a partner in Siegel Sklarek Diamond, California's largest female-led architectural office whose current practice is made up largely of designs for school and child care centers.

"I enjoy the element of public service involved, the sense of doing something really worthwhile for families and children," she added. "But I also yearn for the chance to do bigger and more 'masculine' projects, like large office and retail complexes. Privately financed projects have larger budgets, less bureaucracy and more design freedom."

The prejudice displayed toward women architects by both colleagues and clients is an old story, Diamond knows. Almost a century ago, when Julia Morgan--who went on to design the Hearst Castle in San Simeon--attended the famed Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1896, male fellow students poured water over her head. The architecture school's faculty told her that "we do not wish to encourage les jeunes filles to become professionals."

"Julia's favorite dictum was: 'The buildings speak, I do not speak,' " UCLA professor Diane Favro told the 1987 UCLA Julia Morgan Colloquium on women in architecture. "Though praised by clients for the wonderful way she served their needs and feelings, she has been sharply criticized by historians for the lack of a distinctive design identity. In the male-ego dominated world of architecture, such reticence is a recipe for obscurity."

"You hear the cry--'Where's the female Frank Lloyd Wright?' " said architect Brenda Levin, who also heads her own firm. "Male architects seem to have no problem with ego-expression, but women designers easily fall into the trap of serving the client too well, at the sacrifice of a distinctive style. In this self-effacement of personality they often lose the chance to make a major reputation."

"I don't believe that women designers have to be relegated to a ghetto of pretty anonymity and female self-effacement," Diamond said. "I like to think of my own style as brave and strong and highly sculptural."

'Just a Preference'

With partners Margot Siegel and Norman Sklarek, Diamond heads a Westside office with 18 assistants, all but four of whom are women. ("Favoring women employees is not a policy just a preference," Sklarek said.) Though Diamond, Siegel and Sklarek come from very different backgrounds, all three agreed on a common desire to operate in "a friendly atmosphere free of paranoia and prejudice," Siegel said.

Established in 1986, Siegel Sklarek Diamond Architects has a variety of socially oriented commissions including several new schools for the L.A. Unified School District, an expansion of the Student Services Building at UC Irvine, a child-care center on the UCLA campus and the Richstone Family Center in Hawthorne. SSD's more commercial projects include the interior design of the head office layout for the Jon Douglas real estate organization on Sunset Boulevard, a parking structure at UCLA and a TV studio in City Hall for broadcasting council meetings.

Siegel, 56, was born in Germany and ran her own small practice between 1972 and 1986. Partner Sklarek, a native New Yorker, was the first black woman architect to be registered in the U.S. in the 1950s. She rose to the position of vice president in the large Westside office of Welton Becket Associates.

"I never had any problems bossing men," Sklarek said, "but I enjoy the relaxed intimacy of working with other women in a less competitive context."

Complementary Talents

The partners' talents are complementary. Diamond is the main designer, Siegel is chief project manager and Sklarek administers the practice. "We discuss everything very openly," Siegel said, "and things are not always easy between us. Sometimes we fight like hell. But there's never any residual animosity or sense of injured pride, and we also have a lot of fun together."

"They've got a really nice thing going there," said Bob McAllen, a free-lance architectural illustrator. "I go in and out of a lot of design offices around town, and SSD is a truly refreshing place to work.

"Kate is competitive as hell, but in a different way from male architects. Men seem to have to humiliate their competitors, to go in for the kill. They're often intensely paranoid about their colleagues, and are constantly jockeying for position and status. Kate is concerned with the design, with having it her way, but gracefully. Make no mistake though, she's one tough cookie."

Diamond was born and raised in Chicago, then moved to settle in Israel where she studied architecture at the Haifa Institute of Technology (The Technion) in Israel. She served as a lieutenant in the Israeli Air Force before returning to the United States. In Los Angeles, Diamond became an associate with Benton Park Candreva and designed the award-winning Otto Nemetz office on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood.

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