For crafting a blueprint for architectural activism
Architecture has injustices embedded within it: There’s architecture that hurts and architecture that kills and architecture that damages,” says Pascale Sablan. “You have to activate and create projects that change the narrative and right those wrongs.”
Sablan practices what she preaches as a senior associate at S9Architecture and as founder and executive director at Beyond the Built Environment LLC.
She creates a vision for commercial and residential projects through the lens of design justice, as well as amplifying the work of other diverse designers. Here, she highlights three takeaways from projects that shaped her journey of architecture and activism.
Make it personal.
The project site of the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York City was originally slated to host a 34-story federal office tower. But when extensive human remains were uncovered during construction, the project was halted and the site eventually earmarked as a national monument.
Sablan was one of the team members as an intern tasked with developing the new space, which spans an external memorial, interpretive center and research library to honor enslaved Africans, including the 15,000 whose skeletal remains were buried on the site.
“This little piece of architecture became the moment to keep record and represent all of the history embedded there,” says Sablan. “This was a place to remember all those who were stolen, those who were lost but not forgotten. That was a really important project for me.”
When a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, killing 250,000 and displacing nearly 1.5 million, Sablan—who is of Haitian ancestry—didn’t hesitate to help rebuild the country.
The Association Médicale Haïtienne à l’Étranger chose her to reimagine its rural school campus. To pull off the radically under-resourced initiative, Sablan leveraged her role as an ACE Mentor, a high school program that introduces the architecture, construction and engineering profession as a teachable activity—cultivating a covert focus group, with her volunteers the same age as the demographic they were designing for. “They were super excited and really helped inform the design,” she says.
The Bronx Point, a mixed-use development in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City, aims to flip affordable housing on its head with a resident-first design that elevates community spaces. Slated for Phase I completion in 2022, Bronx Point will span 542 units of affordable housing, as well as the first brick-and-mortar hip-hop museum, a 10-screen movie theater, a cultural center and retail spaces.
One of the smallest amenities became one of the biggest wins, Sablan says. When future residents requested barbecue grills be added to the scope, Sablan successfully convinced the project leadership to expand the scope and accommodate the request.
“The capacities of our homes can be so small that the ability to gather as a community and share a meal is often difficult.”
Q&A: Pascale Sablan on failure, design justice and Philip Freelon
What project in the world most influenced you personally?
African Burial Ground National Monument, the first real project I ever worked on, as an intern and junior designer, was a project about protecting history, and respecting the sacrifice and contributions of our ancestors. It instilled in me that architecture has the capacity to be much more than just beautiful, but protective and educational.
What is the one must-have skill to succeed in The Project Economy?
It’s important that we all exercise a great communication skill set—visual and oral—because it can help communicate ideas and passions to grow your network and your impact on your community.
What is the one must-have skill to succeed The Project Economy of tomorrow?
Problem solving. As we deal with a post-COVID-19 existence and as designing for spatial justice, we need to leverage our critical thinking to create—not just imagine—a new just built environment that protects and celebrates the people.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
My proudest professional accomplishment was when I became the 315th living African American female architect in the United States to attain my architectural license. It took me 14 tests before I passed the 7 required to become an architect. I did not let failure deter me from reaching for my life long dream.
What is your mantra for leading projects?
What does the community say it needs? Asking myself and the team this question repeatedly throughout the design and documentation process ensures that we don’t assume to know exactly what people need without actually asking for their continual ideas and input.
How are young people changing the world of projects now?
They are establishing firms and practices focusing on design justice, pushing for more progress and community-centered design. They want to make the world better.
What’s one way managing projects will have changed by 2030?
The definition of client will expand to encompass all those impacted by our architectural projects. We will be tasked organizing the removal of oppressive architecture and implementing the creation of those that celebrate the diverse cultures.
What famous or historic person would you want on your project team?
Architect Philip Freelon. His body of work was always rooted in documenting and keeping history through the built environment and celebrating our contributions and excellence.