There are two anecdotes Pascale Sablan, an architect, founder of the educational platform Beyond the Built Environment, tells in lectures. The first concerns her initial introduction to the architectural field: as an 11-year-old, she was tasked with painting a public mural at a local Queens, New York, community center when a passerby stopped to commend her on her draftsmanship and suggested she would make a good architect. The second occurred years later after Sablan had enrolled in an undergraduate architecture program at Pratt Institute. It was orientation week, and “a professor called out myself and another woman to say, ‘These two will never become architects, because they are Black women,’” Sablan recalled. “I realized in that moment I would never just be representing Pascale Saint-Louis [now Sablan] but also my gender and my race.”
Identity and advocacy are common threads through her career, which encompasses professional, archival, and mentoring work. After completing graduate school at Columbia University in 2007, she honed her design skills at architecture offices like Aaris Architects and FXFowle (now FXCollaborative) before moving to S9 Architecture as a senior associate. She also became involved in the New York chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), where she quickly entered into leadership roles. In 2014, Sablan became the 315th licensed Black female architect in the country, just as a vacancy for the chapter presidency opened up.
“I was called up to the Presidency position before I thought I was ready,” she said, describing her initial reservations. “But seeing the initiatives and programs about equity [the chapter] was putting forward, I started to identify actionables and making connections outside of daily practice.”
The role offered plenty of lessons in community building and maintaining relationships, but also prompted her to reflect on the experiences of Black architects in an overwhelmingly white field. “I noticed that there was this gap in the chapter’s activity. We were helping to get our members new business, but not doing enough to celebrate our members, ourselves.” Seeking to close that gap, Sablan founded Beyond the Built Environment, which has launched several exhibition series and, more recently, a media drive that aims to get architecture and design publications to commit to increasing their coverage of women and BIPOC practitioners.
The experience of building a platform independently gave Sablan the confidence to turn her attention to the national stage. She was named historian of the national NOMA organization and, in the fall of 2020, was elected its next president. (She will assume office in 2023, becoming just the fifth woman to hold the position.) She is the 2021 recipient of the AIA’s Whitney M. Young Jr. Award, which recognizes social justice work, and last month, she started work at Adjaye Associates’ New York office, where she will be able to jointly pursue practice and advocacy. “Having a task category on your timesheet that says advocacy is incredible,” Sablan said. “It means I’m able to hold my identity as an architect, and as an advocate.”