Beyond the Built Environment is inspiring everyone to lift while they climb.
By Anjulie Rao
One day, Pascale Sablan sat down at her computer and googled the phrase “great architects.” Dozens of architects’ names appeared on the screen, and to her surprise, very few of them looked like her. “There was one woman—Zaha Hadid—and nine people of color,” says Sablan, an architect at S9 Architecture in New York. Hadid, holding two boats, also accounted for one of those nine.
In that moment Sablan was concerned for kids, because when kids hear about something they might like to do—maybe architecture, or landscape architecture—“they google it first,” she says. To find out why so many white men would appear in that search, she contacted Google and was told that there was not enough content created, referenced, or cross-referenced that had addressed the contributions of the myriad women or people of color in design. She thought, What about those architects, landscape architects, and urban planners practicing right now? Where is their library of greatness?
Sablan’s nonprofit organization, Beyond the Built Environment, is now bringing diverse designers to the forefront. “We’re focusing on designers who are using their talents to combat social injustices in policy and the built environment, designers who are engaging communities to solve problems that people wouldn’t think design can solve,” she explains. “We are elevating talented designers who are making the profession an amenity to the community rather than just to developers.”
With this “lift while you climb” ethos in mind, Sablan has created a traveling, city-specific exhibition called Say It Loud, which features diverse practitioners from each host city. Those individuals’ stories are collected into Sablan’s Great Diverse Designers Library—an online catalog that can be shared, referenced, and cross-referenced.
One of the biggest challenges, Sablan says, is convincing these designers to submit their work. “I spend a lot of time telling people they’re worthy of praise and elevation, debunking the misconception that they should be principals to be celebrated and convincing them to claim their contributions,” she says.
Say It Loud also populates a weekly Instagram takeover called “Elevate,” which is a means to inspire designers to claim their excellence. “We want our audience to see our faces, hear our voices, and feel our impact, empowering people to know they’re great,” Sablan says. Since the Instagram takeover began in 2018, she has highlighted several landscape architects, including Elizabeth Kennedy, ASLA; Kofi Boone, ASLA; and Angelica Rockquemore, ASLA.
“Angelica started to talk to me about landscape as a way of maintaining history and culture in Hawaii,” explains Sablan, who met Rockquemore at a social justice design conference in New Orleans. “She spoke about teaching local kids about how nurturing plant life has importance in their history and culture. It blew my mind.”
You can read more about Beyond the Built Environment’s programs at http://www.beyondthebuilt.com.
Anjulie Rao is a Chicago-based journalist and critic focusing on the built environment.