Why This Architect Thinks Activism Has to Be a Part of Design


Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Photo credit: Hearst Owned

When Pascale Sablan was just two weeks into pursuing a bachelor’s degree in architecture, she had an interaction that would end up profoundly shaping the way she approaches the profession and her role in it. “A professor asked me and another student to stand in a class of maybe 60 students or so,” Sablan recalls. “And when we stood, he said, ‘these two will never become architects because they’re Black and because they’re women.’”

Sablan, now a senior associate at Adjaye Associates, took this not as a dissuasion, but as a recognition of the heightened scrutiny she’d face in a field with a track record of underrepresentation for women and minorities—and, more importantly, as a challenge to dismantle it.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Photo credit: Hearst Owned

“Knowing that I’m one of the rarities in the profession provided this level of responsibility—I couldn’t just focus on the architecture at hand, but had to consider the profession itself,” she recalled recently to a packed audience at the Savannah College of Art & Design’s SCADStyle conference. Sablan often notes that she is only the 315th black female architect to be licensed in the United States.

“I’m representing both my race and my ethnicity,” she tells House Beautiful. “I have to show up and show out at all times throughout my career.” That responsibility has always been intrinsic to her work: “From the very beginning of my academic career,” Sablan says, “advocating for diversity was at the heart of it.”

In the offices of David Adjaye—the pioneering Ghanian-British architect behind the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History, among many other notable buildings worldwide—Sablan says, she found her voice was welcomed.

As Sablan argues, it well should be: To her, activism and architecture are inextricably entwined. “The profession is about society; it’s about thinking about collaborating with everyone who is impacted by our design, and considering how that, with their input, is manifested into design,” she says. “And that becomes a version of justice.”

Building on that idea, Sablan founded Beyond the Built Environment, an organization that spearheads programming aimed at dismantling racism and sexism in the design profession and the built environment.

The organization’s first undertaking was an exhibition in New York in 2017, titled “Say It Loud,” (inspired by a James Brown song, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m proud) which showcased work by members of the New York chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA).

“It was an exhibition specifically about elevating the work and identity of [the New York NOMA] members, and leaning into our identities, being loud and proclaiming it,” says Sablan. “We wanted to challenge the perspective of who an architect is, as well as celebrating the amazing work people have done in their communities.”

Photo credit: Courtesy Beyond the Built Environment

Photo credit: Courtesy Beyond the Built Environment

The exhibition soon became an international movement. As of today, there have been 34 “Say It Loud” exhibitions to elevate women and BIPOC designers all over the world. “We’ve covered 70-percent of the United States, as well as 10-percent of the global world,” says Sablan. “Most recently, we had an exhibition in Australia for Naarm Melbourne for Melbourne Design Week.”

Say It Loud has also grown into an augmented reality app and camp geared at high school students (dubbed “See It Loud”) and a children’s pop-up book featuring a diverse cast of creative characters (Learn Out Loud).

“I’m also really excited about another initiative called ‘Say It With Me(dia)’” says Sablan. Similar to the viral Fifteen Percent Pledge founded by Aurora James, this pledge asks media publications to take stock of how many women and BIPOC designers are in their publications, asking them to commit to increasing that by five percent annually until the minimum of 15-percent is reached.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Photo credit: Hearst Owned

It also dives into how media report on these subjects: “We ask the media to use words like ‘great’ when describing women and people of color, or to adopt comparable vernacular that is commonly used to describe our White male counterparts,” says Sablan. So far, eight publications have signed on, accounting for 353,000 monthly impressions.

Sablan has also compiled past participants of her programming into the Great Diverse Designers Library, a list of 774 creatives working today. Her ultimate goal: to create a resource for students, professors, professionals, and publications, to find information about and documentation of BIPOC architects’ work and contributions the built environment.

Sablan is passionate about ensuring that organizations don’t just talk the talk, but they walk the walk: “The concrete steps to promote diversity inclusion are really about taking real accountability to tracking measuring metrics,” she says. “So, if we’re talking about increasing diversity in one’s profession, office, or publication then we have to ask ‘Where are you now? What are the goals that you’re setting? What are the programs you’re creating to push that forward? How are you assessing and evaluating those programs to ensure they are on a trajectory to accomplish what you need? What are the levels of accountability?'”

To that end, Sablan works with the companies who’ve pledged to ensure they track toward a more inclusive future—which is more complicated than just making job offers to a few people of color and calling it a day.

“It’s not just about diversity—it’s justice and equity that will yield diversity and inclusion,” she emphasizes. “You can fill a room with a hundred new Black or women architects, but if they don’t have the same salaries, if they’re not working on the same quality projects, if they’re not being exposed to mentorships, if they’re not being elevated and celebrated, or if they are being told racist and sexist things, they’re simply not going to stay. This kind of diversity will not be sustainable.”

In addition to pushing companies to change, Sablan is passionate about encouraging young female architects and architects of color to push their workplaces to accountability and to, much like she herself has done, seek out platforms to effect change.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Photo credit: Hearst Owned

“Don’t just aspire to join great architecture firms, but also join really important and powerful board positions, locally, nationally, and even internationally,” she urges. “Your voice and identity are important and significant, and your values and ideas should be infused into the profession globally.”

And more of that, Sablan argues, is not just what the design industry needs—but what the world needs as a whole for the common good.

“It’s not that architecture suffers when there’s a lack of diversity—society does,” she says. “Because then we’re not serving everyone, especially those who are in socio-economically disenfranchised areas where the built environment has been designed to perpetuate oppression.”

Ultimately, she asserts, “architecture does not have a passive role in social injustice. If we want a more just society and world, it begins with our profession.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Photo credit: Hearst Owned

This story was created as part of Future Rising in partnership with Lexus. Future Rising is a series running across Hearst Magazines to celebrate the profound impact of Black culture on American life, and to spotlight some of the most dynamic voices of our time. Go to oprahdaily.com/futurerising for the complete portfolio.

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