When Natalie de Blois (1924-2013) completed her professional degree in architecture at Columbia University in 1944, only a handful of women had a substantial career in architecture in the United States.
Starting her career in architecture’s so-called “Mad Men Era“, it comes as no surprise that she was once let go of a job as a male colleague claimed that her presence was “distracting”.
Shaping the Post-War New York
Nevertheless, after joining the famous architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), de Blois quickly rose up the ranks and produced many iconic buildings to define the post-war era and shape the heart of Manhattan.
In her career that spanned five decades, de Blois was involved with the designs of many remarkable projects, particularly the corporate landmarks of New York in the 1950s and 1960s.
Some of her buildings were the finest examples of commercial modernism, such as the Lever House, Pepsi-Cola Corporation World Headquarters, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company Headquarters, and Union Carbide Corporation Headquarters.
Her style was lauded as luxurious and suave modernism, and to this day, some of her designs are among the tallest buildings created by a female architect.
Coming of Age in Architecture’s “Mad Men” Era
However, long after de Blois established herself as a superstar at SOM, she kept facing struggles at work due to her gender. She recalled that during lunch breaks, male colleagues would take the SOM clients to men-only entertainment clubs to network and socialize, and she couldn’t attend. She was once asked not to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony as “she looked pregnant.”Her male colleagues frequently commented on her appearance and clothes. On one occasion, Gordon Bunshaft, a fellow partner at SOM, told her: “You can’t come to the meeting unless you go home first and change your clothes. I don’t like green.”
However, green proved to be a lucky color for de Blois. Pepsi-Cola Corporation World Headquarters, built in 1960, was critically acclaimed for its jewel-like, seemingly levitating exterior walls of gray-green glass and aluminum. It was named a New York City landmark in 1995.
Between 1980 to 1993, she was also a professor of architecture at the University of Texas. She left a legacy as an outspoken advocate for women in architecture and paved the way for women architects to be recognized as equal and competent professionals rather than “female architects”.
“An Architect Whose Work Stood Out, Even If She Did Not”
Upon her death in 2013, an obituary in The New York Times described de Blois as “an architect whose work stood out, even if she did not”.
In this obituary, Beverly Willis, the founder and chairperson of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, a non-profit that aims to raise awareness about women’s role in the built environment, said there wasn’t any woman working for a prestigious firm like SOM at the time.
Willis added, “And, of course, Natalie was doing bigger buildings, and she was doing them in the heart of Manhattan. These were celebrated buildings that the press fawned over, but Natalie’s name was never mentioned.”
Her colleagues were well-aware of de Blois’ talents. In a 1974 autobiography, Nathaniel Owings, one of the founders of SOM, described Natalie de Blois: “Her mind and hands worked marvels in design — and only she and God would ever know just how many great solutions, with the imprimatur of one of the male heroes of SOM, owed much more to her than was attributed by either SOM or the client.”
A Misdirected Pritzker Prize
However, there were others taking notice of the excellence of her designs, while also taking advantage of them: Natalie de Blois’ business partner Gordon Bunshaft was later claimed as having taken all the credit for her work.
When Bunshaft eventually won the Pritzker Prize, known as the “Oscars of Architecture” in 1988, the prize committee described the Lever House as: “It says all that can be said, delicately, accurately, elegantly, with surfaces of glass, with ribs of steel…an impeccable achievement.”