In Memory of Natalie de Blois, FAIA (1921–2013)
Natalie De Blois, FAIA, taught at UT Austin from 1980 to 1993. As an integral member of the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill team, her work is defined by exceptional buildings like the Union Carbide Building.
by Emily Little, FAIA
In 1980, when Natalie de Blois, FAIA, hit Austin, she dove with gusto into local politics, zoning issues, and Barton Springs Pool. She was a clear-eyed speaker of truth who set an admirable example as a talented, wise architect, teacher, and friend. She also just happened to be a woman who had designed some of the most innovative modern buildings in the United States; she is the unsung visionary behind the design of Lever House, the Pepsi-Cola Corporation World Headquarters, the Union Carbide Building, and the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company Headquarters — all American modernist icons. Her friends recall a woman who found joy in working hard. That joy allowed her to thrive in a world where she often received little recognition for a body of work that shaped entire cities and left an indelible mark on the profession. Between 1980 and 1993, when she taught at The University of Texas at Austin, Natalie touched a broad group of individuals. And, in true Austin style, she got involved. My simple call to friends for memories resulted in an outpouring of emails that recalled the warmth, sparkle, and magic of this unique and revered woman. Karen McGraw, AIA, who worked with Natalie on the Downtown Revitalization Task Force in the early 1980s, recalls that her work with Natalie taught her more than any advanced degree. “I don’t know how Natalie balanced all the things she did, but she continued to balance multiple efforts throughout her life,” said McGraw. “I would have relished a friendship with Natalie at any point in her life, but her civic activism phase connected exactly with what I was about.” both on its civic fabric and on a generation of planners and architects still shaping the city today. “Natalie inspired me with her forthright tackling of building the city — employing her strong design sense and uncommon common sense to create structures, city blocks, downtowns, and neighborhoods,” said Jana McCann, FAIA. “She was a person with bracing conviction and rigor, both professionally and personally. She has been a priceless mentor, both in her career and in her way of living — honestly, fully, and with fun and fresh air.” In 1990, Natalie worked with Graeber Simmons & Cowan (now GSC Architects) on the
PORTRAIT COURTESY SOM. PHOTO OF THE UNION CARBIDE BUILDING BY EZRA STOLLER/ESTO. COURTESY SOM.
Indeed, Natalie left her mark on Austin,
re-skinning of 816 Congress, an early harbinger of Austin’s downtown boom. The building was later home to the Texas Society of Architects. Kelly Halls, AIA, was on the team and remembers Natalie’s boundless energy and complete devotion to the work, down to the smallest detail. “She was direct and expedient when it came to expressing her design vision,” said Halls. “She
“She has been a priceless mentor, both in her career and in her way of living — honestly, fully, and with fun and fresh air.” would scrutinize the width of the flanges on the air conditioning grilles to make sure they conformed to her vision of how they fit with other elements in the ceiling. Nothing was allowed to be out of place.” Leslie Stricklan, AIA, was also on the team. She recalled: “No design challenge could intimidate her, as her formidable inner strength had been forged in battles with titans. Her vision included reshaping the building mass to harmonize with the historic form and scale of Congress Avenue, consistent with the zoning code that she had helped develop a decade earlier — itself a forerunner of today’s form-based code trend.” When Natalie came to UT Austin, she received carte blanche from Dean Hal Box to teach what she wanted, when she wanted. “When I went down there, Hal Box said he didn’t think that the students would like doing high-rise buildings,” Natalie said in an interview in 2004. “But the students loved doing high-rise buildings. They came to the class once, and they wanted to take it the next year and the next. I had some students who were able to wrangle themselves into my class three
years running. They just thought it was the best thing in the world.” Tom van den Bout, AIA, who now practices in New York, recalled the same: “When a group of us ‘discovered’ her and signed up for her high-rise studio, she seemed quietly pleased by our passion and keen attention, immediately rewarding us with the assignment of outlining the entire Uniform Building Code. That pretty much sealed my love of all things Natalie.” Architect and builder Peter Dick remembers her soaring imagination, tempered by rock-hard discipline. “She was singular in merging challenge and delight, educating by inspiring self-education, and projecting expectations upon us to form concepts that always had rigor,” said Dick. “Whenever she witnessed us being confounded by the pragmatic limitations of reality, her counsel was always to transcend it with finesse.”
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