Pascale Sablan of FXFOWLE Architects

Pascale Sablan, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP, joined FXFOWLE in 2007, and was promoted to Associate in 2014. With over nine years of experience as an architect, she has been on the design team for a variety of mixed-use, commercial, cultural and residential projects in the U.S., Saudi Arabia, India, Azerbaijan, Japan, and UAE. Her project approach is inspired by urbanism, technology, and sustainable design strategies. Pascale is President of the New York Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), a member of the AIA’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and a Board Trustee for The Mary Louis Academy, a private Catholic college preparatory academy in Queens. She has been recognized for her contributions to the industry with several awards and honors, including the Emerging New York Architect Merit Award–AIA New York and the NOMA Prize for Excellence in Design (Unbuilt) for her redesign of the Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad School Campus in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, which was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. Pascale is the 315th African American female architect in the United States to attain her architectural license. As of 2016, there are only 349 women who hold this distinction. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Pascale’s unique approach and design philosophy.

On becoming an architect
I was blessed with the opportunity to travel abroad quite frequently during my childhood. I observed that architecture can be a direct interpretation of culture, or in some cases, a particular family. What I understood “home” to be in the U.S. was very different in another country. The idea that you can make a tailored space sparked my creativity and imagination. “An architect!” was always my answer when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. While pursuing a Bachelor of Architecture at Pratt Institute, I developed my voice; I learned how to defend both my designs and my design process. It was also where I developed my drawing skills, since I did hand drafting and model making (it was common to find me covered in sawdust from working with my hands in the woodshop). More importantly, I was introduced to a collaborative working process. Late at night in the studio, after the professors went home, all of the students would get together to share their ideas and knowledge.

After graduating from Pratt, I pursued a Master of Science in Advanced Architectural Design at Columbia University where I developed my advocacy voice–defending my design ideas and implementing holistic design visions for the built environment. I developed my point-of-view on what I wanted to see in the world and how I could use my designs to implement change. I also began experimenting with technology in the design process. Recently, I’ve been lecturing on how to manipulate technology to direct the design process.

On her design toolkit
My design process is very much a learning process, and my most important tool is an open mind. The final design is never known to me ahead of time; it’s a series of design challenges that inform the next stage for me as a designer.  It is my hope that the final “product” is custom tailored and bespoke to the client, the community and the environment.

On joining FXFOWLE
While studying at Pratt, I worked at Aarris Architects, and was fortunate to be on the design team for the African Burial Ground National Monument in Downtown Manhattan. This was a great hands-on learning experience, and because it was a small firm, I learned all aspects and phases of architecture. It was the first time I had sketched designs and built physical models that ultimately were constructed. This experience inspired me to seek-out a permanent position with a firm of similar processes. After graduating from Columbia University, I was fortunate to join FXFOWLE, a firm whose ethos aligned with my passion for diversity of ideas, cultures, experiences and backgrounds. Looking back on my nine year tenure at the firm, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with many esteemed colleagues, in particular Senior Principal Sudhir Jambhekar, on several high-profile projects which allowed me opportunities to travel globally (adding a lot more stamps to my passport).

The collaborative process I learned at Pratt Institute was solidified in the design process at FXFOWLE; it was not just an academic process, but a professional tool. FXFOWLE’s leadership gives us the opportunity to play a major role in design exploration and decisions, and to be an integral part of the overall team. Even as a recent graduate, I was never handed a sketch and asked to draft or model, it was always ‘what are your thoughts?’

Being part of a diverse FXFOWLE team helped foster dialogues about values, and how to address the needs of the client while advocating design goals for the built environment. As Project Architect, I am using ideas and fundamental principles resulting from those conversations to inform the design of several campus buildings for a university in Ghana. Studying site, context and culture, and how they inform the design still inspires me just like when I was that child traveling the world years ago.

On the unique approach of the firm
I love the eclectic portfolio of projects at FXFOWLE. Each project is the result of a collaborative, iterative exploration process–the design solution is not limited to a specific look or aesthetic. Each Monday, we host a design review, in which a team presents a current project to the firm. Everyone on the team is encouraged to present, resulting in an engaging discussion and critique.

One of my favorite projects to work on was the Museum of the Built Environment (affectionately called MOBE) located in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Our diverse team embodied the collaborative process by sharing knowledge and resources with one another. If a team member was more proficient in a particular software, we would shift certain responsibilities around which allowed us to push the design and the project forward without being protective about each individual task. It was, and continues to be, a team effort.

As President of the New York chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), New York Coalition of Black Architects (nycoba); my mission focuses on promoting self-advocacy. One of the most important missions of NOMA is to raise awareness within the profession. According to the Directory of African American Architects, black women make up less than .01% of the profession. I have the honor of being the 315th African American female architect in the United States to attain my architectural license. As of 2016, there are only 349 women who hold this distinction. We are a rarity in schools, in teaching positions, and in the literature of great architecture. Our mission is to provide visibility for our members and their contributions to the community and the profession, and to highlight their prolific impact on the built environment. It’s been my experience that minority architects tend to be shy about their accomplishments, so during my presidency I created programs to engage professionals and students to better promote, brand, celebrate and market their work. In response to concerns over the drastic decrease in minority applicants to architectural programs across the country, NOMA developed a national program created specifically for elementary school students. “Project Pipeline” is a day or a series of days where professional architects visit schools and engage students in a design project. For high school and college students, nycoba has programs such as ‘crafting the interview’ and a ‘young designer’s conference,’ with keynote speakers, portfolio reviews, seminars, and design charrettes. These programs provide a unique opportunity for college students to mentor high school students, and promote the value of knowledge sharing and mentorship. It also reassures students that no matter what stage of their academic or professional career, they always have a wealth of knowledge to offer. In addition, we created a funded award to honor those who have either recently become a licensed architect in New York or are enrolled in a New York school of architecture pursuing a bachelor or master’s degree.

Lastly, in an effort to raise the visibility of our members in the design community, I created the Distinguished Member Highlight Recognition initiative. So many nycobaNOMA members do amazing work and hold respected positions on boards and agencies, yet their efforts and hard work remain unknown. Once a month, this program features an architect on the nycoba website and is accompanied by a brief interview focusing on their inspiration, their journey, and one of their favorite projects. In July, we hosted a ceremony to honor all of them together, and awarded them certificates to celebrate their accomplishments.

On her aspirations for the next 5–10 years
Many programs that I participate are geared towards mentorship. In the next 5–10 years, I would love to see some of the young minds that we’ve inspired along the way join me in a professional setting. I would love architecture to be more diverse and promote the expression of eclectic ideas. My dream is to witness a dramatic change over the next few years in the diversity of architecture, design, engineering and construction professionals.

On a more personal level, I have been nurturing a lot of love, passion, and effort into helping to rebuild in Haiti. The horrific earthquake in 2010 and the loss of so many loved ones inspired me to help plan for a stronger future. In the next 5 to 10 years, I would love to collaborate with Haitian design and construction teams to spark new ways of thinking about the way they live and construct while appreciating the country’s beauty and natural resources. A slight modification and strategic refining of the construction process can improve the quality of life for millions of people. Impacting the world in this positive manner would be an amazing accomplishment and honor.

On the future of architecture in next 5–10 years
I am always surprised by how quickly architectural practice evolves. Developing new ideas and the pace at which architecture changes is the most exciting part of the profession. As with technology, it is impossible to predict what will happen in 10 years. We currently invest a lot of time and effort toward environmental sustainability, and it would be great to invest more in social sustainability, in pushing the idea of building society. That change in focus could impact architecture and the tools we use. Technology will continue to evolve, making it even easier for us to articulate our ideas and execute design. Sometimes the most interesting, intriguing architecture is not just the singular project, but how it integrates into the community. Interstitial ideas, moments for collaboration, imagination, and spark are what makes architecture profound to me.

On advice she would give her younger self
Network, network, and network — not just professionally, but with your classmates as well. Your colleagues are going to grow with you and do amazing things, and some day you will be surrounded by people who inspire you to push yourself to do more. Lastly, you always have something to offer to the design conversation and process, no matter what that little voice in your head says. Your perspective on a topic or a solution to a design problem is something that half the people in the room never thought of before. Always be expressive, don’t be shy, and share, share, share.