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Very few architects are Black. This woman is pushing to change that

Pascale Sablan was once told she'd never become an architect because she's Black and a woman. Now she works for one of the world's most prestigious firms and she wants more people who look like her to join the field.
Aundre Larrow
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Pascale Sablan
Pascale Sablan was once told she'd never become an architect because she's Black and a woman. Now she works for one of the world's most prestigious firms and she wants more people who look like her to join the field.

There is a devastating story that Pascale Sablan sometimes tells when she talks about the experiences that have shaped who she's become.

It starts in a place of joy. In her case, Sablan remembers feeling elated as a teenage freshman at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture back in 2001 — long before she became an architect and went to work for one of the world's most prominent architecture firms.

During her second week of classes at the prestigious New York City school, a young white professor asked Sablan and another female student to stand up in a classroom of about 60 of her peers, she told NPR during a recent phone interview.

"These two will never become architects because they're Black and because they're women," she recalled him saying.

The words — embarrassing, stinging, demoralizing — were intended to prove a point: That architecture school is rigorous and most people never finish an architecture degree. The San Francisco Institute of Architecture reports that nationally "for every 100 students who enroll, only 20 will graduate." The statistics plummet further for students of color and grow more dismal still for women of color.

That means that African Americans represent only a tiny fraction of the people who are designing and building the spaces around us. That includes housing, schools, government institutions, cultural centers and houses of worship. It also means they lose an opportunity to influence decisions about the shapes of cities — such as the placement of highways that uproot long-established communities.

Regardless of the professor's intent, the statement felt like a physical blow, Sablan said — until that moment she hadn't realized that the pair were the only Black women in the classroom.

"I was surprised that a professor who didn't know my name nor my capacity would make such a strong proclamation," Sablan said. "And I was also humbled by the fact that my peers were quiet and silent about it."

Sablan didn't report the incident to school officials at the time. "It didn't even occur to me to do that. ... I was just so shocked because I had never experienced that kind of blatant racism and sexism before in my life," she said.

(A spokeswoman for Pratt said that due to the natural turnover in faculty and the 20-plus-year time gap, it is nearly impossible to corroborate Sablan's story. But Sablan maintains a close relationship with the school, and just last month, was at Pratt serving as a panelist in a conversation on "Black Lives & Black Spaces.")

Sablan has resoundingly proved that professor wrong. Her resume is among the most impressive in the industry.

Not only did she graduate with a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Pratt, she also got a Master of Science in Architectural Design from Columbia University. In January, Sablan, who was finally licensed to practice after 13 years of working and numerous exams, was promoted to associate principal at Adjaye Associates New York studio. The firm, founded by lead architect Sir David Adjaye, is behind some of the world's most stunning buildings, including the National Museum of African American History and Culturein Washington, D.C.

Sablan also serves as president of NOMA, the National Organization of Minority Architects. In 2021, at the age of 38, she became the youngest African American inductee of the AIA College of Fellows — an honor bestowed upon only 3% of the group's members "for their exceptional work and contributions to architecture and society."

In talking about the trajectory of her career, Sablan said there's no doubt that the excruciating classroom moment launched her passion for advocacy, pushing for just design policies and practices, and a determination to get more young people interested in pursuing careers in architecture.

"That was the moment of reckoning for me to understand that when I walk into a space, I represent more than being Pascale," she said.

"I represent my gender and my ethnicity, and therefore I have to show up and show out to the maximum degree. I can never let my performance be the reason why opportunities are reduced or eliminated for people like me, and instead must be the reason for their multiplication."

Architects by the numbers

The professor's remarks that day were based on his own experiences and data, Sablan said. "He'd simply never seen a Black woman architect and there's a reason," she said.

The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), a nonprofit that helps establish state guidelines for exams and licensure, reported that as of 2022 there were 121,603 licensed architects working in the U.S. and only 2% — 2,492 — are Black. Of those, only 566 are Black women. That's under one half of one percent. Those figures encompass licensed architects who identify as Black or African American.

Historically, the barriers that kept Black people from entering the profession or achieving mainstream success were rooted in racist laws and policies that kept them out of schools, prevented them from taking licensing exams or belonging to professional organizations. When those were officially lifted, the field remained conspicuously white and segregated, and demographic changes have been incremental across the profession.

In a scathing speech to the American Institute of Architects, AIA, in 1968, Whitney M. Young, Jr., who was executive director of the National Urban League at the time, addressed the absence of racial diversity in its ranks.

"If you don't speak out for some kind of scholarship program that will enable you to consciously and deliberately seek to bring in minority people who have been discriminated against in many cases, either kept out because of your indifference or couldn't make it — it takes seven to 10 years to become an architect — then you will have done a disservice to the memory of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bob Kennedy and most of all, to yourselves," he said.

NCARB, which has been tracking demographic changes for years, reports that the number of Black architects who have passed the Architect Registration Examination, ARE, has remained between 2% and 3% since 2010.

The long and rigorous road to becoming an architect

Sablan says minorities often don't consider a career in architecture as an option.

"Young, African American students just don't see themselves in this industry and so they don't pursue it," she said. And, she added, it's also a career that takes a lot of time and money to see through.

For the most part, getting an architecture license is a three-step process. First, there's matriculating from a university accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board. Next candidates must complete nearly 4,000 hours in what's called the Architectural Experience Program. Finally, they have to pass the multi-division Architect Registration Examination, ARE. (Some states may also require additional experience or exams.)

It takes about 13 years, on average, to earn a license, according to NCARB. An undergraduate architecture degree, which can take up to five years, can cost anywhere from around $50,000 to about $175,000, according to U.S. News and World Report. And required exams and continuing education can add thousands of dollars to the cost of pursuing a license.

To help get students interested, Sablan founded Beyond the Built Environment in 2017, a platform dedicated to amplifying the work of women and people of color who are architects around the world. "To remove the shackles and the obstacles that are in the way," she says.

The group hosts panels and public exhibits featuring the work of underrepresented architects in person and online.

"Because when people are curious about African American architects and learning about their work, it's always the same five architects who passed away decades ago," she said. That does nothing to encourage young people to envision themselves as part of the design world today, Sablan added.

"Now, they have a resource, a free no paywall resource called theGreat Diverse Designers Library, where they can research and see the work and identities of all these diverse professionals," she said.

Changing Google's algorithm to recognize a diverse array of designers

Sablan laughed as she repeated the name of the growing database. (It now includes 917 architects from around the world.)

"The reason why I was audacious enough to call it the Great Diverse Designers Library is because when you Google search the words 'great architects,' the Google banner comes up with about 50 names and faces," she noted.

"You get zero African-Americans and only one woman, Zaha Hadid," she said, referring tothe first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize.

As of the writing of this story, nearly six years after Beyond the Built Environment was launched, Sablan is still mostly right.

When this reporter conducted the same search with the two keywords, the results included one Black architect: David Adjaye, Sablan's current boss who is not African American but rather Ghanaian-British.

Disheartened but not discouraged, Sablan said she took the issue to Google. "When I went to their headquarters and asked why that was the case, they said, 'Pascale, There's not enough content out there in the world that calls you all great.' "

So, in labeling the library "great" Sablan is attempting to single-handedly influence the algorithm, connecting the words great, architect, Black and women.

"And in this work, I have now amassed this incredible collection of contemporary, currently practicing, diverse designers across the globe," she said. "We understand that representation matters, and that's emblematic here."

Why diversity in the field matters

Sablan rarely misses the opportunity to note the importance of connection between the professionals conceiving and constructing our environments and the people they should serve. Early into the interview, she joked that she works the topic into nearly every conversation, whether or not it has to do with architecture "and I can always bring it back around."

At the most basic level, she said, "poorly appointed architecture perpetuates inequality" and this most often occurs in communities of color.

To prove her point, she offered an anecdote about her favorite architecture project, the Ancestral Chamber that is part of the African Burial Ground Memorial in New York City. Sablan said she was an intern on the project.

A worker helps complete construction of the African Burial Ground Memorial on Oct. 1, 2007, in New York City.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A worker helps complete construction of the African Burial Ground Memorial on Oct. 1, 2007, in New York City.

As construction on a 34-story federal office tower began, an archeological survey unearthed what was once called the "Negroes Buriel Ground." Studies have found the site spanned about 6 acres of lower Manhattan and contained more than 15,000 intact skeletal remains of enslaved and free Africans who lived and worked in colonial New York. Years later, President George H.W. Bush allocated funding to construct the Ancestral Chamber, which houses 419 intact skeletal remains and 500 artifacts.

"So even City Hall, where we go to get married, and all of those official government buildings down there are actually all built on the backs and the bones — literally, figuratively and conceptually — of African remains and our ancestors," Sablan said.

She added: "This was the first project I had really ever touched that taught me that architecture itself had a responsibility to be an advocate, to teach, to keep history, to maintain that legacy. It's important that we continue to realize these types of spaces that tell the stories that are long forgotten or being erased and not even being included as it relates to the way that we're being taught and how the records are being manifested."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.