A deeply committed and passionate advocate for the marginalized and underserved among us, Pascale Sablan, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP, often leads with the statement that she is the 315th living female Black registered architect in the U.S. Since joining S9 Architecture as a senior associate, her work has been shaped by the knowledge that Black Americans comprise only .02 percent of the nation’s design and construction professionals. Sablan began her career as an intern at Aarris Architects where she worked on the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York, and at FXCollaborative, where she contributed to many award-winning cultural, commercial, and residential projects across the U.S., Asia, and Middle East.
In addition to serving on the board of several advocacy organizations, Sablan is the founder and executive director of Beyond the Built Environment, a platform that showcases the work of women and diverse architects and designers through exhibitions, lectures, and documentaries. The platform’s SAY IT LOUD, now a digital initiative and traveling exhibition, has been adapted into Remember Slavery: Say It Loud and since translated into eight different languages and installed exhibitions at United Nations locations around the world. So far, SAY IT LOUD has elevated the voices and work of 250 designers and architects, and Sablan seeks to double that number (submit here by September 1) to build a series of diverse design resources.
Interior Design: How did you know you wanted to become an architect?
Pascale Sablan: As a preteen I was commissioned to paint a mural at the Pomonok Community Center in Queens, New York. My masterpiece was a multicultural jungle gym that reflected the diversity of the Pomonok community. While I was drawing the equipment, a passerby stopped and said, “Wow, you can draw straight lines without a ruler, that’s a great skill for an architect to have.” When he said that I lit up because I realized that it was a perfect profession for me. It was also not lost on me that, had that stranger not made that comment, I do not know when architecture as a profession would have been offered to me as path to explore.
ID: What are some of your earliest memories of experiencing architecture?
PS: I was blessed with the opportunity to travel abroad quite frequently during my childhood. I observed that architecture can be a direct interpretation of culture, or in some cases, a particular family. What I understood “home” to be in the U.S. was very different in another country. While pursuing a Bachelor of Architecture at Pratt Institute and later a master’s degree at Columbia University, I developed my voice. I learned how to defend both my designs and my design process. And perhaps more importantly, I was introduced to a collaborative working process.
ID: What has been the biggest challenge thus far in your career?
PS: Becoming a registered architect in New York was by far one of my most proud moments because it was my biggest challenge. The exam process was a lengthy and grueling experience, but the victory of the undertaking is now I am the 315th living female African American registered architect in the U.S. With this accomplishment I now possess the authority to be responsible, and held accountable, for my environment. I realize that being a great architect also lies in empowering those without a voice. To be a persistent advocate for the built environment and the communities and families who inhabit it would be the highest honor of my career.
ID: What are you working on right now at S9?
PS: As a senior associate at S9 Architecture I am currently leading a variety of projects ranging from cultural institutions to mixed-use, community-focused projects and developments. They are all confidential, so I have not shared too much my architecture work recently. Consequently, I’ve become more known as an advocate than an architect. I am super proud of the way I’m impacting the built environment. As soon as I can I will share more information on the Bronx Point and the Cleveland Foundation Headquarters projects. Both projects engage the local community and embed the culture into the built environment.
ID: As the nation is staring down a global health pandemic in addition to police brutality and systemic racism, how is design thinking uniquely positioned to face either problem?
PS: Our role as architects is to listen, to hear, and to feel the cries and what is being demanded by the communities for these injustices, and to serve as a resource for not just wealthy clients, but for the greater public. Our charge is making sure the world is more equitable and just. So really, our approach is not to assume that we are leaders here, because for us to be leaders would mean that we’d be highly educated and understand the process and the dynamics of a suppressive infrastructure well. These are expertise we do not have. Therefore, this is a moment for us as architects and designers to pause our thoughts and listen to what is being said, do research in terms of the injustice, work collaboratively with the community to get those answers, and find a solution together.
ID: In addition to your role at S9 Architecture, you are founder of Beyond the Built Environment. What drove you to start that initiative?
PS: After years of volunteering as an advocate in organizations such as NOMA and AIA, I became knowledgeable about the systems and characters of oppression that plague the profession. I identified a sector that was not being focused on and that aligned with my natural passion and resources. Leveraging my professional and activism network, I founded Beyond the Built Environment to represent marginalized people—both within the profession and within communities most underserved by the profession. We aim to involve everyone (from preschoolers to practitioners and pundits) as critical stakeholders and advocates for just, diverse environments. We promote agency among diverse audiences and advocate for equity in the built environment through our approach which utilizes a method I termed “the triple E, C”: Engage, Elevate, Educate, and Collaborate.
ID: What are some of the ways this mission has manifested itself so far?
PS: Through the international SAY IT LOUD exhibitions we’ve already been able to gather work from over 250 profiles of diverse designers from all over the united states. Additionally, there are many languages that make up the vernacular of architecture that consequently make the profession inaccessible to the general community. We leverage augmented reality as a tool to educate and empower as a design mechanism for youth in the form of a mobile app called SEE IT LOUD.
LEARN OUT LOUD is a children’s book series featuring current diverse designers to ensure tangible mentors for children interested in the professional to access for guidance and direction. Kids are prompted to say “I CAN TOO” out loud whenever they are on a pop-up page. The purpose of this affirmation is to get children comfortable and familiar with encouragement in this path, so that when they are faced with adversity—or those who say they do not have the capacity because of their gender or race—they can dismiss the ignorance of that voice.
On Juneteenth 2020, I released a statement and launched three dismantling injustice initiatives. In SAY IT WITH – Media, we are asking media outlets to commit to tracking, publishing, and increasing their percentage of BIPOC and women featured in their digital, print, or broadcast media. With SAY IT LOUD – NOW, we’re setting a goal of increasing the content of the SAY IT LOUD library to both serve as a directory for business opportunities for the featured designers and material for the publication of a Great Diverse Designers Textbook. And in the Data to Define Policy, we will be hosting a virtual focus group in the fall with 500 diverse designers to better understand how we can make policy changes to combat discrimination and economic equity within the world of architecture.
ID: You’re also very involved with NOMA, and you served president of the New York Chapter from 2015-2016. How have you seen that organization evolve in recent years?
PS: Absolutely, I have had the pleasure of serving on the National Board under the tutelage of a few presidents: Kevin Holland, Bryan Hudson, and Kimberly Dowdell. All three of these inspiring leaders have worked towards a collective vision defined by the NOMA community and used their unique skillset and network to build a strong advocacy force within our profession. NOMA has been fighting for justice for 50 years and through that time, our programming has refined and activated nationally, our prestigious national conference has maintained its family reunion experience, and our reach as an organization in the profession and the greater community has expanded into the larger global community.
ID: You must be busy! How do you decide where to put your energy?
PS: I am the Northeast Regional Vice President and Historian of NOMA, a member of the AIA National Strategic Planning Committee, and serve on the Board of Directors at AIA New York and on the Board of Trustees at the Mary Louis Academy. My bio reads, “Architect-activist Pascale Sablan champions women and diverse design professionals by documenting, curating, and elevating their work. The objective: to create a just profession, bring social awareness to the built environment, and empower communities through design.” Therefore, the decision on where to pour my passion and energy is measured against my mission. I take on roles and positions that give me the authority and power to change policy that inches us closer to the inclusive and just profession and world that we all deserve.
ID: What would you say to young people who seek to enter the field of architecture and design?
PS: Network, network, and network—not just professionally, but with your classmates as well. Your colleagues are going to grow with you and do amazing things, and some day you will be surrounded by people who inspire you to push yourself to do more. Lastly, you always have something to offer to the design conversation and process, no matter what that little voice in your head says. Your perspective on a topic or solution to a design problem is something only you can offer. Always be expressive, don’t be shy, and share, share, share.