Yanel de Angel Salas FAIA
In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, the BSA is featuring Profiles on Hispanic and Latinx architects in the profession.
Master in Design Studies, History and Theory of Architecture, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University
Master of Architecture 1, School of Architecture, Syracuse University
International Study, Florence Italy School of Architecture, Syracuse University
Bachelor in Environmental Design, School of Architecture, University of Puerto Rico
Complex projects, resilient and regenerative planning and design, housing affordability, community empowerment
What is the greatest challenge you have faced as a Hispanic and Latinx person in the field of architecture and design?
The greatest challenge I have faced in the field of architecture and design have not been due to my Hispanic and Latinx heritage but due to my gender. It can be painful to share some of those experiences. This is the reason why I am passionate about the BSA’s Women in Design groups and initiatives. I want to continue changing the landscape for women in the workplace – for my peers, for the next generation and for my daughter.
How has your heritage shaped who you are today?
My heritage has shaped who I am. We are all products of the environments where we grow up, live, and form our view of the world around us. I think the Puerto Rican culture is festive, caring, welcoming, and proud of our history and roots. I feel that I embody all of that. One circumstance of my Puerto Rican heritage is our island condition; growing up felt a bit insular at times, and I think this sparked my curiosity for what lied beyond our coast.
What advice would you give to Hispanic and Latinx students or emerging professionals in the architecture and design industries?
My advice to emerging professionals is to look beyond the boundaries of our own disciplines. The challenges we face today CAN be solved by design. This requires breaking traditional silos that hinder designing solutions across disciplines. We often think about design as an act that pertains only to the humanistic and creative arts. The reality is there are many designed constructs in the world, and the more deeply rooted and complex constructs might be difficult to redesign. Take, for example, climate change and the adaptation required from everyone to enact effective change.
But before we solve problems by design, we need to spend time getting to the root of the problem. We need to understand the problem, characterize it, educate ourselves with data and test solutions. Furthermore, we can have a broader positive impact if we partner in seeking solutions. These partnerships should be strategic and intentional, weaving diverse perspectives to engage in a richer outcome.
Did you have any mentors that have influenced you, or helped guide you?
I had many mentors that influenced and helped guide me. At the onset of my undergraduate degree, I had the opportunity to meet Beatriz del Cueto, a Preservation Architect highly respected in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean. At that time, she was the only women architect with her own successful firm on the Island. I was lucky to intern for her one summer and witness firsthand how she had to work twice as hard on many aspects of the business compared to her male architect counterparts. She taught me the importance of rigor in research, well done as-builts, quality of materials and design, sticking to your core values, and why ethics matter. Above all, she taught me to raise up even if you are swimming against the current.
More recent mentors in my professional career include two key people. First, David Damon—an architect, friend, and colleague at Perkins&Will—who
brought me to the firm, taught me the deeper interrelationships in
higher education, and demonstrated how projects can move beyond serving
their programmatic purpose to serve the institutional mission. David’s
devotion for his teams and impeccable service to clients continues to
inspire me every day. Second, Robert Brown, who has beautifully led our
studio for the past 10 years and mentors by example. From him, I have
learned that there is no growth without risk, that we must know when to
pivot and be nimble, and that accessible leaders put people first.
What is a guiding principle that you believe is necessary to follow for people working to make the profession more inclusive?
The guiding principle that I believe is necessary for the profession to be more inclusive is what I call “Open the gates!” And by that, I mean access and opportunity. It’s been proven that diverse teams are more innovative because they come to a problem with different backgrounds and perspectives. But of course, it is not enough to have a diverse team. The members of the team must feel genuinely included and engaged.
Scaling up to observe diversity in the studio environment and even the profession at large, we must first look at the leadership level and the pipeline of talent. A healthy studio ecosystem is diverse in different ways: cross generational, multi ethnic-racial, talent, experience, backgrounds, disciplines—just to mention a few. The outcome of diversity at the studio scale is that we reflect the diversity of the clients we serve so we can better understand where they are coming from with empathy.
Our profession at large must reevaluate its makeup to innovate and serve. As we form teams with consulting partners, contractors, and clients, we are providing that diversity of thought and design solutions at a greater scale. The result is a design product that reflects the deep dimensions of a community.
When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
I first became interested in architecture as a possible career when my uncle, who was an architect, explained that architecture was a discipline able to merge all my interests: arts and crafts, science, the environment, and a desire to transform communities.
How do (or how did) you explain to your parents what you do for a living?
I did not have to explain much to my mom because she had a degree in Fine Arts. We always had an art studio at home, and she was very supportive of me. Making things and painting were my typical activities. All I had to say was: “I think architecture is it!”
If you could give the you of 10 years ago advice, what would it be?
Always listen to your inner voice.
Who or what deserves credit for your success?
My family, friends, mentors, and exemplary sheroes.
Has your career taken you anywhere you didn’t expect?
Yes, my career has taken me to a few places I did not expect. I did not expect to be in a leadership position at a firm like Perkins&Will—a place that has changed me personally and professionally, as well as my outlook on the world. I have been working at Perkins&Will for over 13 years. During this time, I have felt extremely supported, inspired, and respected. I attribute my professional success to the firm’s open and embracing culture, its genuine and supportive leadership, and its clear design ethos—to create environments for the broader goals of society. This is a place that values each individual’s intellectual contributions and invests in emerging talent.
What has been your most proud moment as an architect/designer?
One of my proudest moments as an architect/designer was the creation of resilientSEE, an initiative I co-founded after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, thanks in no small part to the generosity and openness of Perkins&Will’s leadership. The initiative is a global and multidisciplinary alliance that provides pro bono design services to under-served communities. Today, the initiative is growing beyond Puerto Rico and includes projects in Atlanta, Mexico, and Boston.
The projects in Puerto Rico have ranged from educational guides for building resilient homes and community centers, to urban planning and conceptual designs, to pre-positioning communities for grants through self-advocacy. These projects have required the coordination of many volunteers, including professionals and community leaders. We begin projects by bringing the community and government leaders to the same table, listening to their knowledge and experiences with empathy, and creating a collaborative culture of co-creation. While the design product is important, we have found that the process is even more valuable. Through this inclusive process, the community experiences a transformation of empowerment and validation that leads to self-advocacy, project ownership, and, therefore, the creation of a resilient spirit—an emotion that no one can bestow and must be taken. As a result, we help position communities to act, be stewards of their own ideas, and own the process of their own transformation.
What do you hope to contribute from your work?
With my work, I hope to contribute spaces and experiences that are carefully choreographed to be inclusive and accessible to everyone within a community—spaces that welcome all.
What do you see as the largest barrier to equity in your profession?
The largest barrier to equity in our profession is access. For quite some time, a few in a privileged position have been holding the keys to the gate. It is very hard for women and minorities to have access to those keys, and even enter through the gate. I am grateful that we are now in an era of awakening to social injustices, because the first step is to acknowledge that we need to be intentional in our actions to see change. We are all responsible for leveling the playing field—supporting individuals by providing access and opportunities. When we are genuine in our efforts to grow diverse talents, we thrive and excel, collectively.
What are some changes that you have implemented in your firm (or for yourself) to address issues of equity in your profession?
Equity is a value I take very personally because I worked double in my career to overcome lack of equity in the profession. I served in Perkins&Will’s Diversity Council for three years and during that time I had the opportunity to contribute these past experiences to form new programs and policies.
I am lucky to work at a firm which is at the forefront of J.E.D.I.—justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion—thanks to our tireless leader and industry advocate Gabrielle Bullock. When you have a leader like her, someone that has set the tone of a J.E.D.I. culture, it is much easier to implement changes firm-wide and locally. We have pay equity check-ins to monitor fairness and equity in salary compensation, our parental leave is generous, we offer flexible work time to all, host unconscious bias training to be more self-aware to improve, and invest in various programs for leadership training and growing the pipeline of underrepresented people. These efforts will continue to grow and evolve because this is an area where much change is needed.
What is the most effective step you’ve taken in your work toward a more sustainable built environment?
The most effective step I have taken in my work toward a more sustainable built environment required a mind shift. I had to stop thinking about sustainability and move to a more regenerative and integrated framework. Our climate crisis demands that we go beyond sustaining and move toward regeneration. We also need to understand that siloed thinking will get us nowhere—what we need is a systems thinking approach where we see a variety of perspectives integrated: inclusion, resilience, sustainability, regeneration, and well-being.
What do you see as the largest barrier to a zero-waste building, city, and world?
The largest barrier to a zero-waste building, city, and world is, at least in the short-term, measurement. We can’t change what we don’t measure, and right now, very few projects are tracking embodied waste. As an industry, we need to move toward an assembly and disassembly mentality so everything we put into a building can be taken apart for reusing or recycling. We also need to think about quality and durability because when things are done well, they last longer. And of course, adaptive reuse is a great way to prolong the life and relevancy of our built environment.
What is the greatest potential for architecture to shape a neighborhood community?
The greatest potential for architecture to shape a neighborhood community is to be genuinely responsive to the needs of that community, contextual and beautiful—because every community deserves design excellence.
Who do you most enjoy partnering with on a project?
I enjoy partnering with users during the design process because I believe in a collaborative approach to creation. When users are involved, we educate each other, and as a result, the product is that much richer and relevant to their needs. It is very satisfying to go above meeting those needs and deliver beautiful and inspirational spaces.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in people—interacting with them and learning their stories.
What are you reading right now?
Shero’s Journey: A Story-Guided Adventure to Self-Discovery and Empowerment by Laurie Morin, who is a friend of a friend.
What was your least favorite college class?
My least favorite college class, besides Structures, was the Professional Practice class taught at 7:30 AM... in a manner that made it hard to grasp how much consequence and importance it would have in professional life after college.
Have you had a memorable experience while working on a BSA initiative that you would like to share?
My most memorable experience while working on a BSA initiative was the opening night for IMPACT: Inspired & Inspiring. This exhibition marked the 20th Anniversary of the Women in Design Award of Excellence and coincided with International Women’s Day. It showcased the impact awardees have made throughout their careers. Seeing the room full of these amazing and exemplary women was deeply memorable.
If you could sum up your outlook on life in a bumper sticker, what would it say?
Small things done consistently, and in strategic places, have long lasting and significant effects.