Georgia Louise Harris Brown (1918-1999) was an architectural visionary that could sense the future in both form and place. Her life and career began in the heartland and expanded across the country and even led her to live and work in Brazil. In her youth, she focused on developing her mechanical and design skills by working on farm equipment, cars and painting. After graduating from Washburn University in 1937, she spent the summer in Chicago studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology (formerly Armour Institute of Technology) under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the emerging modernist architect that would become a 20th century global icon.
This course inspired her to enroll at the University of Kansas to study architecture. The university was noteworthy for its modern programs, grounded in industrial production and the unity of art and technology. She leveraged this program’s position to define her niche and catapult her long-lasting career. In 1944, she became the first Black woman graduate of University of Kansas with a degree in architecture. She achieved the designation as the second licensed African American woman architect in the country.
Between graduation and obtaining her license in 1949, she worked for the Chicago firm Kenneth Roderick O’Neal. Her move Frank J. Kornacker Associates proved to be a pivotal advancement in the trajectory of her career. She built upon her construction knowledge by attending evening civil engineering classes. This additional education is what set her apart from all other architects. At this firm, she became Mies van der Rohe’s favored structural engineer. In this role, she was the structural calculator behind several key high-rise projects, such as Mies’s Promontory Point Apartments and 860–880 Lake Shore Drive, the minimalist grids of glass and steel.
Ms. Brown was quite an entrepreneur, passionate designer and seeker of excellence. She maintained an outside pipeline of commissions that included houses, office buildings and churches in Chicago and then in Brazil. Apparently, her move to Brazil in 1953 was to advance her career and escape pervasive racial discrimination and sexism. She didn’t dwell on these encounters or allow them to absorb mental space. She [didn’t] consider herself as a black woman in architecture,” she says. “You can’t! Because if you really thought about that, you would be so weighted down that you would not be able to function.”
Her move to Brazil was prompted by her fascination with the plans for Brasilia, a new capital city where a singular modernist language was being created in the voice of the most ambitious planned capital of the 20th century. This new city would be carved from wilderness as a singular experiment in urbanism shaped like a bird or airplane. This area is peppered with works by the godfather of Brazilian modernism, Oscar Niemeyer.
During the tenure for American architect Charles Bosworth, she worked on substantial projects such as Pfizer’s regional headquarters, a Ford Motors plant, an airport for Krupp of Germany and a Kodak film factory. According to her biographical team, “She was acquiring significant experience in the design, construction, and administration of industrial and prefabricated building sites that she very likely could not have obtained in the United States at the time.” After Bosworth, she opened her own interior design firm, Escandia Ltda which is where is probably designed over a dozen private homes for wealthy Brazilians.
Seventeen years after her arrival, Brown became professionally licensed in Brazil, became fluent in Portuguese and led a series of firms until 1993, when she retired and returned to the United States. Ms. Brown never saw herself as a pioneer. She aptly acquired the education, experience and opportunities she desired to practice her passion. In doing so, she became a legend and role model for so many women to this day.