Pascale Sablan: Person Extraordinaire

Pascale Sablan , project lead on the new Cleveland Foundation complex .

By Sharon Lewis

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

I found this quote by Aristotle in one of Pascale’s award submissions, and it describes her perfectly. Pascale Sablan: daughter, sister, wife, mother, architect, and professional advocate.

Pascale Sablan, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP, is only the 315th living black woman licensed as an architect in the United States. (AIA, 2018) She is the project lead on the new Cleveland Foundation complex to be located along East 66th Street.

As a minority woman in a white male-dominated profession, the road has not always been clear or without its challenges.  In her second week of classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, Pascale and another classmate were told to stand.  Initially, she thought she was being volunteered for a class assignment until the professor said to them that they would never be architects because of their gender and race. In front of the entire class, can you imagine the shock and humiliation? The statement was cutting. However, having grown up in a supportive environment, she did not crumble. Also, at that moment, she was uplifted and confirmed by a classmate who said to her, “don’t let him be the reason you quit.” Without that encouragement at that exact moment, who knows what would have happened. At that moment, she realized that she was not just representing herself, but every minority person that had come before her and everyone that would come after her. Pascale holds no animosity toward her professor.  His words made her stronger and prepared her for the future. He may have propelled her to her life’s work of advocating for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), and female architects.

Pascale is on a mission to correct the perception that minorities do not exist or excel in architecture.  She needs us to know the stories and power of the BIPOC men and women responsible for our built environments. She is well on her way to righting the wrong created by the larger society’s failure to document those accomplishments. Her battle is won through excellence, presentation, exhibition, advocacy, hard work, and a ferocious heart, mind, and spirit. Self-described as passionate, vocal, and caring her beaming smile evidences her love for her work as she discusses her work.

Pascale received her bachelor’s degree in Architecture from Pratt Institute (Magna Cum Laude), and her Master of Science in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University. She is currently a Senior Associate at S9ARCHITECTURE in New York, and since 2018 the Founder & Executive Director of Beyond the Built Environment, an organization positioned to uniquely address the profession’s inequities by providing a platform to support BIPOC and women’s accomplishments at all levels of the architectural realm. To that end, she works tirelessly.

She states that Beyond the Built Environment is her most ambitious endeavor to date. Her organization has a three-prong dismantling injustice approach to making a change in the profession. First, approaching pertinent media outlets (print, digital, and broadcast) and getting them to sign a Memorandum of Understanding named SAY IT WITH Media and pledging to create more content that explicitly lists diverse designers as significant. Also, committing to start with 5% visibility and increasing by 5% each year until reaching 15% of the content. Secondly, SAY IT LOUD – NOW is a digital and in-person exhibition that highlights diverse architects and designers. The Cleveland, Ohio Exhibition was initially set to open on March 12, 2020, at Karamu House just as

Governor Mike DeWine shut down the state due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. Due to its closure, you missed getting to meet Pascale and some of Ohio’s homegrown talent. Please take a few minutes and check out SAY IT LOUD: Ohio (https://www.beyondthebuilt.com/say-it- loud-Ohio). You will be surprised by who built what. Pascale has put out a clarion call for submissions from diverse architects from around the world.  This portfolio includes all women and architects/designers of color. Her goal was to collect 500 submissions in five years.  In just over two years, she has collected 421 entries.  Each architect showcases one of their designs and tells who inspired them to become an architect.  This material will become a sort of online resume for the featured designers as well as content for a Great Diverse Designers book.

160 East 22nd Street – S9 ARCHITECTURE

One of the things that spurred her on was when she Googled “great architects” and found only one female, nine minorities, and zero African Americans. (Fazzare, 2020)  She approached Google and was told that the information was not available, so she chose to capture the data for us all. I am sure that she will have that book published in record time, and the Architecture textbook publishers will have to yield to her demands. Lastly, in collaboration with Remesh, Beyond the Built Environment holds virtual focus groups with diverse architects and designers from all over the world.  The aim is to “collect the data needed to understand how we can make policy changes to combat discrimination and promote economic equity within the world of architecture. (Beyond the Built Environment, 2020)

Her skills have earned her numerous awards and honors, 17 to date. She has shared her knowledge, enthusiasm, and fight for justice in her profession as a speaker at Harvard University, the United Nations, The Georgia Institute of Technology, Tuskegee Institute, and California Polytechnical State University (I do not have space to list all 87 speaking engagements).

When asked what, aside from recognition from her peers was the value of her awards?  Her response: “her recognition made it possible for her to elevate others and to showcase their talents and accomplishments.”

Being an award recipient gives her the leverage to ask for what she wants and the space to make a change. In addition to her work at S9 ARCHITECTURE and Beyond the Built Environment, she is president-elect (2021-2022) of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA). She will be the 5th woman to serve as president in the organization’s 50-year history. She served as the Northeast Regional Vice President (2018- 2020) of NOMA and will continue through 2021 as its Historian.  Her remaining memberships and affiliations are far too numerous to mention. Yet to her credit, she has appeared in 85 professional publications, most recently, Interior Design Magazine, Culture Magazine and Landscape Architecture Magazine, to name a few.

In talking to Pascale, I learned that there is no ready-made template for good design.  A good design is one that meets the needs of its users. To meet the needs of the users you must talk to them and find out what they need and want to accomplish with the space.  One should never assume that their concept for a building is sufficient.

A good architect must be “a good collaborator (leader and support), be inventive and creative, be determined because of the number of challenges, and be patient because some projects take years to complete.  One should enjoy the process and be a community advocate.” All those critical skills came into play with the design of the new Cleveland Foundation Headquarters.  The design is unique involving more than a city block and a partnership with the Dunham Tavern Museum.  It will include:

  • Enhanced green spaces
  • A welcoming lobby
  • A public café
  • The Steven A. Minter Conference Center
  • Additional ground-floor conference rooms for meetings and gatherings
  • A multipurpose room for community events, classes, performances, and other activities
  • A community staircase connecting the second and third floors, offering informal gathering and event space
  • Indoor-outdoor event and meeting spaces (The Cleveland Foundation, 2020).

The building itself has large glass windows which allow you to look in on your community foundation and the community foundation to look out on the community that it supports. (The Cleveland Foundation, 2020)

From my vantage point, Pascale Sablan is fierce.  Not some celebrity fabrication of fierce, but genuinely fierce. Fierce is defined as having or displaying an intense or ferocious aggressiveness. (www.oed.com) Pascale believes, “Teaching women not to be aggressive or outspoken is part of a system of making sure we stay marginalized. We’re challenging that” (Forbes, 2020).  According to ReadyPublication.com, “Being fierce means standing your ground when the going gets tough. One of the hardest things she has ever done is to pass her Architect Registration Examination.  It took her five years. Each time she failed, she realized she did not know enough and pushed harder until she succeeded.

“A fierce woman is always looking to better herself and the world around her”. (What Does It Mean to be FIERCE?, 2020) She gladly acknowledges that her mother is her hero because she has loved her and cheered her on every step of the way. So, she stands on her shoulders. She knows the value of family due to losing a sibling after missing his birthday celebration. Experiences teach us that there will always be another deadline looming and should not take priority over family. From childhood, she has cheered on and exposed others’ accomplishments, which does not please her siblings and friends.

When asked if she could have it all, she said, “yes, with support.” There are so few women in her profession with children, so her husband’s help is required and appreciated to do what she does.  Sharing the care and nurturing of her young son is her heart’s delight. She desires to be remembered as his mother and one who loved and promoted him to his purpose. From interning on the African Burial Grounds National Monument in Manhattan (New York City) to the Bronx Point Project (New York City) a 541-unit affordable housing residential complex that will also house the nation’s first brick and mortar Hip-Hop Museum, the Museum of the Built Environment in Saudi Arabia and now the landscape changing Cleveland Foundation Complex in Cleveland, Ohio, she is leaving her mark all over the world. Lastly, the very act of writing the story of architecture’s great minority architects and designers so that all the world will know of their contributions: is something no one has ever even considered doing. She is dedicated, talented, unselfish, unsung, dynamic, and fierce!