It’s no secret that working at a large firm can be a demanding and even frustrating experience marked by long hours, limited autonomy, and creative constraints. The 9-to-5 (or often 9-to-9) grind can also overshadow one’s personal pursuits—be it a dream project, a worthwhile cause, or new skills. Here, three emerging professionals share how they’ve managed to prioritize self-initiated projects and carve out their own paths.
Define Your Passion, Then Create a Toolkit
For Pascale Sablan, AIA, her push to develop a personal brand separate from her work as a senior associate at S9 Architecture, in New York, coincided with a burgeoning passion for diversity and inclusion in architecture. The realization that she “was the 315th African American woman in the United States of all time, ever, to become licensed,” led Sablan to establish Beyond the Built Environment (BBE), a platform for championing and amplifying the contributions of architects of color through public programs, exhibitions, and panel discussions.
To amplify her message, Sablan depends on a range of digital tools and marketing strategies, including Google Drive and her Wix website platform to send out periodic newsletters. Her “Excited to Share” email blast, first started six years ago to keep her family and relatives apprised of her work, now goes out to well over 1,000 recipients. As she traveled to conferences, speaking engagements, and other networking events, amassing contacts, she began to extend the newsletter to professional acquaintances as an easy way to keep her contacts organized and informed with her latest calls to action, news developments, and projects that link back to her website.
Similarly, Julia Gamolina, Assoc. AIA, was pushed into her latest venture, writing and managing the popular blog Madame Architect, in light of the growing discourse on women in architecture. Frustrated with the “Where are the women architects?” refrain, Gamolina, a designer-turned-business development coordinator at FXCollaborative in New York, began interviewing them for a guest-edited series for ArchiteXX, a non-profit organization for gender equity in the industry. By the end of the series, Gamolina had cultivated a following, which encouraged her to launch the blog, where she now highlights the accomplishments and contributions of women in the field.
“Whenever I heard people say, ‘Find something you love, and you'll never work a day in your life,’ I would always roll my eyes,” says Gamolina, who sets aside time each morning to work on Madame Architect before heading into FXCollaborative. “Now I take it back—because that’s really the way I feel about it.” She has now collected interviews with more than 50 women architects, amassed thousands of Instagram followers by posting content regularly, and has been profiled in various design publications.
Dare to Provoke
In designer Dong-Ping Wong's case, the first step to establishing his personal brand came when he went outside the conventions of architecture. In 2011, Wong and fellow designers Archie Coates and Jeff Franklin captivated the industry with +POOL, an unsolicited proposal for a floating, self-filtering swimming pool in New York City’s East River. Introduced purely as a visual concept and provocation—and rebellion against architecture’s stringent culture centered on briefs and competitions—the project has become a calling card for Wong’s fresh ideas and a refreshingly pop-driven approach to architecture.
“In the beginning, the intention wasn’t even to try and build it,” says Wong, who dreamt up the idea while freelancing. “Nobody approached us to design a pool. I’ve always just been interested in different ways to initiate projects and ask, 'Are there different ways that architects can communicate? Are there different ways architects can have more agency?' ”
With a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2011 to fund feasibility tests and a series of fundraising rounds, the +POOL team is now working with many collaborators to realize the project, attracting press and attention on the creators: Time magazine even ranked the project as one of the 25 best inventions of 2013.
Wong has since parlayed his reputation as an innovator who embraces the alternative into working on commercial and community engagement projects with the likes of Kanye West and Virgil Abloh. Now with his firm, Food New York, Wong aims to self-start one out of every five projects, with an ongoing emphasis on thinking outside the box of conventional architecture. Recently, he started a radio station, run out of a local Chinatown storefront, which features workshops and a podcast for local entrepreneurs to connect with the community.
Bring the Benefits Back to Your Firm
With her workload, Sablan will often sleep just three to four hours a night and regularly dedicate her evenings, weekends, and paid time off to running BBE. But she's convinced that her advocacy has tangibly brought value back to her employer, S9. One client even hired S9 for a job expressly because of Sablan’s work. “They were a mission-based organization, and they said it was important that their architect also be a mission-based professional,” Sablan says. She foresees a future in which an in-house director of advocacy will become commonplace at architecture firms, similar to the rise of directors of sustainability and of diversity and inclusion. “There’s a real financial benefit to this kind of work,” Sablan attests, who sees all of her work as part of the same spectrum of inclusion. “The visibility of what we do is very important, because representation matters.”
Like Sablan, Gamolina is thankful to have an employer that supports her efforts and recognizes the added brand value that her passions bring to the team. “FXCollaborative is extremely supportive,” she says. The firm is also home to a robust women’s group, FXWomen. “The support comes from the very top and from male leadership," she says. "Managing partner Guy Geier, FAIA, and senior partner Dan Kaplan, FAIA, are two of Madam Architect’s biggest fans” and regularly nominate women for her website.