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Pascale Sablan, CEO of Adjaye Associates’s New York office, opens up about her work and the current state of the practice

Pascale Sablan, CEO of Adjaye Associates’s New York office, opens up about her work and the current state of the practice

Pascale Sablan is CEO of Adjaye Associates’s New York office. (Stanley Jordan)

Last summer, The Financial Times published an article containing allegations of sexual misconduct against David Adjaye by three female former employees. As a result, some clients walked away from projects, staff sought other work, and a general sense of the architect being “canceled” set in. Regarding the claims, Adjaye has said: “I categorically reject any allegations of sexual misconduct or abuse. They are untrue, distressing for me and my family, and run counter to everything I stand for.” He hasn’t stepped away from his eponymous practice. Though it has been restructured, he remains its executive chair and principal.

In New York, Adjaye Associates works from part of a floor in One Liberty Plaza. Music plays in the open office, which boasts a well-equipped model shop. (Adjaye’s personal office is behind a single, closed swing door to one side.) The studio, which handles projects in North America, South America, and the Caribbean, is currently designing two high-profile commissions—the Princeton University Art Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem—nearing completion. This location is 76 percent BIPOC, and globally the practice of over 150 people is 82 percent diverse and 67 percent of the staff identify as Black.

The New York office is led by Pascale Sablan as CEO, a prominent architect who is currently president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA). Sablan is a welcome force—she is people-focused, at once driven and down to earth. AN’s executive editor, Jack Murphy, sat down with her to discuss her work and how Adjaye Associates is moving forward.

AN: Tell me about your journey to become CEO of the Adjaye Associates New York studio.

Pascale Sablan: I was proud to join Adjaye Associates in 2021. I was asked to be myself here. Coming in, I was concerned that being a parent was going to be seen an obstruction to leadership, but that part of my identity was appreciated just as much as my love for a good spreadsheet, being organized, and being people-focused. My guidance centered around nurturing an atmosphere that allows us to evolve our design principles without compromising our focus on people.

It’s one thing to get promoted, and it’s another to be promoted with resources. I recognized and appreciated this in the language of the promotion. It was like, “You earned this,” not that it was something gifted to me. As a Black woman in the role of CEO, this was incredibly reaffirming. I’m excited about it, and I’m loving it. 

What does a CEO at an architecture office do?

I set the priorities for the studio. The first one is people. Once I know my people are good, then it’s about the projects. Once my projects with my people are good, then it’s about changing the world. I have a global role. There are CEOs of our other studios—shout-out to Kofi in Accra and Lucy in London. This is part of the larger restructuring of the practice, which includes three boards and a stand-alone Ethics & Policy Committee.

The first is the executive board, which David chairs along with the three CEOs and our global CFO. The second is the Design Excellence board, which again is chaired by David along with associate principals and studio leaders; this is about design and project implementation. Then there’s the administration board, which I chair, which takes care of operations. It also creates structures and allows for advocacy to happen globally.

The Ethics & Policy Committee includes a senior external HR adviser, is in place to strengthen group-wide governance and provide oversight of the firm’s policies and processes.

With this restructuring you described, what is David’s current role in the company?

The restructuring allows me, Kofi, and Lucy to be CEOs while working as a global studio. It also frees up David, as our design principal, to be 100-percent focused on design and projects. He continues to lead in that capacity and always participates in every project. That is his central focus, and it gives operations decisions to the CEOs.

As an architecture practice focused on creating both design excellence and design justice, there isn’t a baton-passing phase. We are part of a project from its concept all the way through construction administration.

How do the three studios of Adjaye Associates—Accra, London, and New York—work together?

We do a few things. The first is the approach to global resourcing. There’s also shared expertise. We hold internal talks where we highlight leaders of different sectors. For example, the Accra office has expertise in rammed earth, whereas our New York office is becoming a leader in mass timber. And London is a specialist in sustainable concrete. In terms of our portfolio, we’re able to pull from across the three studios. We also have a research team for every project. It’s not a group of architects who know how to Google—it’s actually researchers with degrees who work with clients to understand the history and the context of what we’re working on.

We encourage our community through global newsletters in which we celebrate each other’s achievements and share articles and events so that we get to know one another.

Was this restructuring in the works prior to the article in The Financial Times last summer? Or did it emerge after that coverage?

The office was reconsidering what our structure should be prior to the article because we wanted to think about legacy. We were getting a lot of projects, and despite our commitment for David to be a part of every design, the prior model wasn’t sustainable, because of how involved he was in day-to-day management.

The article did expedite the restructuring, but that change was always part of the strategy. We tried to be thoughtful and intentional about our new structure so it could reinforce the principles that the company was founded on and the great work that we have been doing. The nuances of the restructuring were completed last year, and then this year it was implemented.

What has been the impact on Adjaye Associates of the allegations made against David?

We have incredible clients who engaged with us when those allegations were made and asked us questions. There was a lot of publicity about the clients who left, but there was a significant number of clients who stayed. They understood our office, David’s integrity, and our diverse staff. This allowed us to again think about how we can continue to evolve our practice. What are other ways for us to be better and to be grateful for our clients who continue to allow us to focus on our great work? Again, my number one priority as CEO is people, so I’m here to nurture and cultivate talent and create a pipeline to leadership. We’re staying busy, and we’re hiring in all of our studios to continue to build our team.

Did the allegations come as a surprise to the New York office?

When I was considering coming to the studio, I looked on the website to see who was leading the company, and I wasn’t sure what my experience would be here. I personally reached out to Black women who worked in the company and asked critical questions. I heard encouraging feedback. No place of business is ever perfect, but I heard this was a great office.

I did my personal due diligence prior to joining the team, and so when those allegations were published, they were a big surprise to me. Not only was that not what was communicated to me before, but it also wasn’t my lived experience. And I can only speak from my experience, right? I wasn’t there. I don’t know, and I don’t presume to know. David has denied all the allegations. They were a big surprise to me.

The other thing that was interesting was that the people described as the victims were people who looked like me. I went back to the Black women I had called before and said, “Tell me more.” And all of them said the same thing: that this was not their experience. In this situation, it was interesting to navigate and process things in real time. I was sensitive to what our staff was going through. As statements were being made and articles were being published last summer, we looked inward. The situation hurt a lot of our staff. I appreciate that we focused on healing and repairing, and I’m proud of the studio.

It was a lot to take in and to understand the industry’s understanding of what was written. But also, how do you pit that against what you know, your personal experience? It’s not that one invalidates the other, but it’s more about understanding context and doing your due diligence.

How did the allegations change your working relationship with David and the company?

When the story was published, I had been here for about two years and had worked with David on projects, operations, and implementing advocacy work. I only experienced him as a complete professional and a mentor.

I was mindful of the allegations because, knowing my experience, the conflict wasn’t my truth. I don’t think that our working relationship changed. The trust he earned during the years of working together was never altered because of how he carried himself; it was only amplified. I was given respect, I was given authority, mentorship, and the right to push more advocacy and challenge the office.

I’m a blunt and honest person, and I hold true to that here. But I also represent so many communities as a Black woman, the president of NOMA, and the founder of Beyond the Built Environment, an advocacy organization for women and people of color. For me, the situation was about listening, learning, and hearing. But if you’re asking if it was a tough time, yeah, it was a tough time.

How do I represent different groups in a way that’s authentic and accurate? In a lot of ways, I’m representing our staff in this conversation. But I’m also representing NOMA, and I’m also representing myself and my family. How do I carry that tension and make sure I really feel proud of the work that I do? I continue to leverage my community and my support system.

How did the allegations against David impact your community of diverse designers at NOMA and elsewhere?

I created opportunities for feedback. Part of that was calling a NOMA board meeting. I also spoke to key members of the NOMAC community—people who achieved the highest honor in NOMA, similar to fellowship in the AIA. Aside from making sure that I was OK and then showing up for the committee that we represent, I think a lot of them expressed the awareness that people of color are held to standards that are different than others. We absolutely rely on the brilliance of David’s design work, but it’s a lot of collective hands that make it come to fruition. Our contributions to projects come from a very diverse team whose work shouldn’t be diminished.

With me in a position of leadership here, the NOMA community said something like “Pascale, your being there speaks volumes. Our skepticism in what was being alleged was assuaged because we know who you are, and we know you will function in a way that is a counter to that.” But I also left myself open to hearing if people wanted me to step down, even if I wouldn’t have agreed with them.

For me, it’s always about putting the collective above the individual—in both my advocacy work and the work we do at Adjaye Associates. Our studio doors are open for collaboration. We are working on projects that are innovative, that are pointed, and ones that are really focused on community building and healing. We’re here! I’m happy that we’re hiring and creating the team necessary to continue to deliver great projects.

How is Adjaye Associates moving forward from those allegations? What is the strategy?

The first is that these are allegations. The equation between what is alleged to what is fact is something we need to be mindful of. I’m speaking from my position as CEO, but our collective strategy focuses on making sure our staff is flourishing and enjoying the work that they’re doing, seeing professional growth, and delivering great projects. And that is part of the principles and the key pillars of the studio—pre- and post- and sideways and upside down of any article or allegation. It’s not what we are looking to do; it’s the things that we’re doing.

From a press standpoint, in terms of how you will see us, we will always be centered around the work. Because that’s what we all collectively care about. But it’s not just a project; it’s the process of the project. Our community engagement efforts are not a phase; they are every phase of the project. We produce these beautiful reports that synthesize our surveys, work sessions, and workshops. This research results in an understanding of that community, which is why the portfolio is so diverse in terms of scale and the aesthetics of our projects. Each one is uniquely bespoke, to the point where if you moved it three blocks away, it would change because of the site’s contextual pressures.

We also participate in financial justice to ensure that we’re tapping local industry knowledge to create diverse consultant teams using minority- and women-owned practices. When we are involved with these communities, we’re not helicoptering in to offer something and then peacing out; it’s about how to create long-lasting relationships and bonds with people as we do this great work. The results are projects that make us reconsider the norms of what we think great architecture is, and then we see that great architecture allows for communities to come together to make space for healing and growth.

Studio Museum in Harlem
Studio Museum in Harlem (Trent Tesch)

What is the current work of the New York studio?

We have an incredible project in Barbados that the team is excited about. We are almost done with documentation and will begin construction soon. We’re continuing to collaborate on a Cleveland master plan. The mixed-use development at St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, D.C., is also a powerful project that literally makes me cry in some of these meetings when the community talks about what the project means to them. You think I’m joking, but I’m serious. And we have the Studio Museum, which is a beautiful cultural institution that we’re continuing to work on. It’s almost done, and as a person who lives in Harlem, I’m really in love with it. Plus, our art museum for Princeton University will open in the fall. The pipeline is strong, and the projects are moving forward.

The numbers you shared regarding BIPOC designers at Adjaye Associates are impressive. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to model excellence?

For me, it’s always a bit of responsibility. I’m not sure if you know my story, but when studying architecture, a professor asked me and another student to stand and said, “OK, these two will never become architects, because they’re Black and because they’re women.” In that moment, I realized that when I was studying to become an architect, it was beyond just the practice that I’d be building; it was about the responsibility of changing my profession. When I walk into a space, I’m not just representing Pascale. That’s why it’s so important to me that I don’t make assumptions about what that community needs or how they want to be represented. I can move with confidence, audacity, and courage to advocate for that.

I appreciate the privilege and the responsibility, but it is heavy. But with all the support I’m blessed to have, I’m able to keep my head high.

Even if you were “just” a CEO of a global architecture practice, that would be a lot of work, but you have other initiatives and accolades.

I’m the youngest African American to be elevated to the College of Fellows in 167 years, and what is beautiful is that I received that honor for the work I do elevating others.

In previous offices, being an advocate was a huge problem, which is why I had to create that line between what I did during the day and what I did at night. Being elected president of NOMA was something that I got a strict talking-to about when it occurred. That changed the trajectory of my professional career. When I was thinking of coming here, I voiced my concern about just becoming president. They said, “That’s why we’re calling you; this role means you understand community and leadership.” The number one story I tell people about Adjaye Associates is that when my first week was done, I sat down to do my timesheet. And one of the default times they have in the system is advocacy! That’s not Pascale doing it; that was part of the office’s DNA. It felt like I found home, because the office wasn’t asking its diverse staff to solve these things and do them outside of work; it’s time that is captured, reinforced, and valued.

Part of the reason that I’ve been able to lead NOMA in the way that I have and to see tremendous growth, both domestically and internationally, is because I am supported here. I’m not asking for permission; here, it’s like “Whatever you need, Pascale.” It also matters for me as the parent of a small kid. I want to be an extraordinary architect, but I also want to be an epic, phenomenal mom. Following the work of Rosa Sheng and tracking how women fare in the profession, I knew that becoming a parent changed my odds again. If I’m being honest with you, I never saw myself as able to be elevated as CEO because I check all the do-not-check boxes related to the role. That’s why it’s so important to me that I don’t dilute who I am, and why it’s so important to me that I’m in a community here at Adjaye Associates that supports, amplifies, and encourages me.

And what’s the latest with Beyond the Built Environment?

I have an amazing team who has taken over a lot of the everyday work. As a show of commitment to NOMA, I didn’t want to be confusing about what I was advocating for, so during my presidency, I stepped away from being executive director, and now the staff move things forward. We continue to do exhibitions; we are 48 now, and I think we’ll hit 50 before the end of 2024.

We’re also working on a book based on our exhibitions called Greatness: The Diverse Designers of Architecture. It is divided into four typologies—residential, institutional, cultural, and master planning—with essays that speak to how that typology has harmed and how it can be leveraged to heal. Then there are ten projects in each chapter that connect to that healing process. At first I wanted this to be a gigantic book with everything in it because I was concerned that it would be my one and only opportunity to publish a book like this. If you think about how many books are actually focused on the work of BIPOC designers, it’s rare. But I was moving with a scarcity mindset and since then started to embrace this idea of abundance. Part of the strategy is to release the book at this year’s NOMA conference in Baltimore at the end of October.

How do you make time for all of these commitments?

I learned how to delegate. During COVID, when I was in a lot of virtual lectures, students specifically would ask, “How do you balance it?” and my cheeks would turn red. I’m like, “I’m about to disappoint y’all on this call,” because I didn’t have a good answer. A few NOMA members actually called me and said, “Pascale, this is not sustainable. The work that you’re doing is so important, but if you continue this way, you will burn out.”

There was also this moment where my son drew a family portrait and in my hand was my computer. I was like, “Never again.” It’s intentional that I’m not on my phone or computer in the evenings. I’ve been prioritizing my time with my son to unplug and give him 100 percent of my attention.

It’s interesting to think that currently it is important to recognize the collectivity of design teams, but at the same time, we need to support diverse designers—basically, not straight white men—whose identities have gone underrepresented in architectural history. These two urgencies aren’t necessarily in competition, but is there any tension?

They aren’t competing. For example, my mission with Beyond the Built Environment is not to say that these folks are the sole designers of these projects, but to acknowledge their roles. If we don’t capture and document our contributions, then they will be unknown and unseen, and with time they won’t be respected. Shining a light on somebody else doesn’t dim your own light.

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