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Women Architects Mark First 100 Years : Exhibit celebrates the progress of the fastest-growing segment of AIA.

June 25, 1989|EVELYN De WOLFE | Times Staff Writer

More than a century ago, a determined Louise Blanchard Bethune (1856- 1913) of Buffalo, N.Y., set out to prove that she could design buildings as well as any man.

Before long, Bethune was doing baseball grandstands, factories and schools, and in 1888 became the first woman to be admitted to membership in the American Institute of Architects.

A traveling exhibit that opened Friday in Pacific Design Center marks that 100-year milestone and celebrates the progress of women in architecture.

"That Exceptional One: Women in Architecture--1888-1989," co-produced by the American Architectural Foundation with the cooperation of AIA's Women in Architecture Committee, will run through July 31 and then continue on its three-year nationwide tour of major cities.

Heading Local Task Force

Heading the local task force for the exhibit is Kate Diamond of Siegel, Diamond Architects in Los Angeles, who at 35, single and "passionately" devoted to her career, is typical of a generation of women in architecture who are no longer the exception in a traditionally male-dominated profession.

"Our 12-member task force has added a Southern California component to the exhibit that is like a snapshot view of where we are and where we've been, showing the progress of women architects not only through major accomplishments but also less publicized, smaller achievements.

"With some 80 Southern California projects representing the work of 40 women architects, we feel the exhibit adds substantially to our credibility both as professionals and as role models for young people aspiring to enter the field," she said.

Norma Sklarek, a 1950 graduate of Columbia University who barely squeezed in on a minimal quota for female architectural students in the 1940s, has distinguished herself not only as the first black woman to be elected to the membership of the American Institute of Architects but as the first and only woman in its Los Angeles chapter to be elected an AIA Fellow.

"I am not in the most glamorous or visible part of the profession," said the new principal at Jon Jerde Architects. "I coordinate the many engineering systems in a project."

Asked about the progress of her own career, Sklarek said: "I never expected life to be easy, but I have found the profession a good one and my male colleagues very helpful, actually rooting for me. Being the only woman in the firm I first worked for, I was highly visible and I was motivated to be highly productive. I had to do more than was expected of me."

The American Institute of Architects reports that women are now the fastest-growing segment of AIA membership. With a total membership of 37,277 registered architects, 1,240 are women. Since 1974, the number of female AIA members has grown from 250 to 4,210.

During the 1987-88 academic year, women made up 28% of the enrollments in accredited bachelor of architecture programs and accounted for about one-fifth of the graduates that year. Women also represented 36% of the full-time master degree hopefuls last year, earning 27% of the degrees awarded.

Architect Margo Hebald-Heymann, a 26-year veteran in the profession who heads her own firm, was one of five women in a class of 64 when she entered Cornell University's School of Architecture, Art and Planning.

"There was an unwritten quota that was quite apparent. Our teachers bluntly told us we were wasting our time and theirs as we would surely never follow a career after marriage," she said. "For several years, on an average, no more than five women applicants were accepted in their freshman year."

Of 16 students in her 1963 graduating class, four of the five women graduated. "All are still practicing, all four of us married architects and each couple had two children."

Hebald-Heymann said that after she left college, she was the victim of stereotyping on several occasions. "There were times when I hired men who were interior designers and if I took them out to a job site, invariably some contractor would address my male employee as if he were the architect and I the interior designer."

Pivotal Year at Harvard

Brenda Levin, principal of Levin & Associates, Los Angeles, a 1976 graduate of the School of Architecture of Harvard's Graduate School of Design, whose firm employs six architects, of whom three are women, noted that 1976 was a pivotal year in the number of women receiving degrees from that university's school of architecture.

"When I was an undergraduate at Carnegie-Mellon in 1964 to 1968, only two women were enrolled in architecture. The profession was still perceived as male-oriented. But when I graduated from Harvard, the tide had begun to turn and 40% of the graduates in architecture were women."

The most frustrating aspect of her career, she said, has been trying to shift the perception of her firm.

"We are as equally capable of doing new, large-scale urban projects as other firms, but I feel we are handicapped by the overall perception that women architects are OK, but on smaller jobs."

Visitors to the exhibit will have an opportunity to get a historical perspective from the work of pioneer architects such as Lutah Marie Riggs, Edla Muir, Lillian Rice and the legendary Julia Morgan, the prolific turn-of-the-century Bay Area architect was the first woman to graduate from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. She designed more than 800 buildings in a career that lasted until the early '50s.

Women who have contributed to the design of the contemporary environment include Rebecca Binder, a recipient of several honor awards from the California Council of the American Institute of Architects, and Maya Lin, who as a 21-year-old Yale University architecture student, submitted the controversial prize-winning entry of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

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