Something remarkable about Vassar’s campus is the building labels. Written into the architecture, they remind us of how these buildings house important histories. We might think of the Main Building Takeover in 1969, when 34 Black female students occupied the “immense brick edifice” in response to sustained abuse and neglect from Vassar’s administration, faculty and fellow students alike (Vassar Encyclopedia); or the 35-hour Main sit-in of 1990, when students protested Daniel Moynihan’s appointment to a special professorship following a prolonged series of racist remarks (The New York Times, 1990). In his lifetime, former Professor Jeh Vincent Johnson, who taught architectural design at Vassar for 37 years, expressed deep appreciation for this archival power—how buildings memorialize acts of resistance and monumental transgressions. You are probably familiar with Johnson’s creations. He designed the Susan Stein Shiva Theater, the Jeh Vincent Johnson ALANA Cultural Center and faculty housing, among a great many housing units and community structures. He died this January, leaving a great legacy within and beyond the school gates.
His contributions in architectural education were as extensive as his portfolio. Of the 286 students who took his advanced studio course, dozens became architects or professors of architecture; he even produced five Fellows of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Many of the students he championed were women and people of color, who are notoriously underrepresented in the field (Insight Into Diversity, 2019).
On Wednesday, Nov. 3, the Vassar Art Department invited Pascale Sablan to Taylor Hall to deliver a talk: “I Was Asked to Stand.” As the President-Elect of the National Organization of Minority Architects, an organization that Johnson co-founded, Sablan was the perfect candidate to open a lecture series honoring the Poughkeepsie architect’s legacy. The first thing Sablan told us, no nerves or pause, was that we would not be falling asleep during her talk. Her speech was a quick, breathless flow punctuated by the occasional laugh. “Quick, breathless flow” is also an apt description for her career as architect and activist. She did not use the lecture time to discuss pure design, which might have surprised some. That is not her credo, nor was it the design philosophy of Johnson, who described himself as a sociologically-trained architect. Instead, Sablan used her field and career story as a lens for the racism and sexism ingrained in educational institutions, the professional world, media representation and public life.
Sablan gave us some numbers: The total percentage of Black architecture students has remained at or near five percent for nearly a decade; only 2.5 percent of architecture professors are Black; Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have put out some 60 percent of Black architecture-degree holders; only around 2 percent of licensed architects in the U.S. are Black. Sablan is only the 315th Black female architect in the U.S. and the fifth woman to be President of NOMA in the organization’s 50-year legacy. “Studying architecture is a position of privilege, and access and investment,” Sablan remarked, pointing out the immense time and monetary investments of even pursuing design. Lest arguments of inadequacy or affirmative action be made. The dismal statistics felt more palpable when she touched on her personal experiences. One episode was particularly jarring: When pursuing her Bachelor’s at Pratt, a professor asked her and another student to stand; the professor said that the two would not become architects because they were Black and female. What stunned Sablan was not only the professor’s statement, but also that there were only two Black women in the lecture hall.
Before Sablan came to the podium, Johnson’s son, Jeh Charles Johnson, who is a lawyer and former Secretary of Homeland Security, briefly joined us over Zoom. He posed a question that had dictated his father’s career: “Why are the people in underserved communities, who could benefit the most from design… why are they not consulted meaningfully? Why are they not represented?” Subsequently, Sablan gave answers and recommended solutions. The junction of her identity and vocation has produced a feeling of obligation in her, not only to deliver as an architect, but also to be a representative, advocate and activist. Infrastructural and institutional racism goes largely unacknowledged in the field, from New York architect Robert Moses’ hyper-low, anti-bussing bridges over the Southern State Parkway (Bloomberg, 2017), to the way slavery is part and parcel with the built environment, to how “development” is often synonymous with gentrification. The client for a building project, said Sablan, is not the person who cuts the check, but everyone affected by the project—the people who actually live in the space, who pass the structure everyday on their work commute or after grocery shopping. So she emphasizes the need for architecture to cohere culturally with the surrounding space and community. Of course, a white-dominated project for a predominantly minority neighborhood fails to have the client’s best interest in mind.
Sablan catalogued her accomplishments and plans with an order and exactness reflected in her designs, and still it was difficult to comprehend that one person was behind everything. In addition to being an Associate at the architectural and design firm Adjaye Associates, she is the Founder and Executive Director of Beyond the Built Environment, an organization that promotes equity in architecture and planning by highlighting “diverse” designers. For this project she has mounted dozens of architecture exhibitions over a mere few years. This exhibition series, called “SAY IT LOUD,” showcases the work of women and BIPOC designers—each show catered to the host region—and has traveled across the U.S., overseas and even to the Visitors Center of the United Nations. Just last month, there were six “SAY IT LOUD” shows on display across the country.
Sablan’s ventures in improving representation take her to many places, some more conspicuous than others: the “Great Diverse Designers Library” documenting designers featured in the exhibitions; an architecture appreciation camp for students of local communities that also provides mentorship opportunities for fledgling designers; an interactive app; a children’s book. She questioned Google for the lack of Black architects featured on the engine’s banner, and she diagrammed the issue for us: rows and rows of white circles bearing the white names that appear after searching “great architects.”