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Great Immigrants

M. Rosaria Piomelli
Architect and Former Dean, Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York
Born in:
Italy

M. Rosaria Piomelli was born in Naples, Italy, in 1937. Her father was part of the Italian resistance during World War II and the family went into hiding. The war over, Piomelli was finally able to begin her schooling. She discovered a passion for drawing, eventually attending the Art Institute of Naples and going on to earn two architecture degrees from Italian universities. In 1957 she moved to the United States to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), enrolling as an undergraduate despite her advanced training in the subject, one of two female students enrolled in the program. (When Piomelli went to pay her tuition she was asked if she was there to enroll her husband.) She was repeatedly told throughout her studies that architecture was “not a woman’s job,” a refrain that would later inspire the title of her autobiography. After graduating from MIT Piomelli worked for several architecture firms in the United States and Europe, including I. M. Pei & Partners, before opening her own firm in 1974. Her best-known projects include the Sciences Library at Brown University, the main library at Oberlin College, and the Pierson School in Tarrytown, New York. In 1980 Piomelli was appointed dean of the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at City College of New York, becoming the first woman to head an architecture school in the United States. Piomelli has worked to open the profession to more women, most notably as director of the American Institute of Architects Equal Opportunity Committee in the 1970s. In 1974 she organized an exhibition featuring the work of women architects across New York City. The New York Times mentioned the exhibition in a story headlined “Female Architects Building Influence in a Profession That Is 98.8% Male.” As Piomelli told the Times, “We have been demanding a piece of the pie.”