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The Urban Planner Reveals All


MEETING WITH Rashid Ali, Somali born Building Design Young Architect of the Year Award finalist, in East London’s Rich Mix centre, seems like a very appropriate setting for our conversation given both of our multi-cultural backgrounds and interests.

Rashid has just completed designing and curating, Mogadishu – Forgotten Pasts & Distant Futures, an installation at Swiss Cottage Library which is a part of the British Council’s International architecture and Design Showcase 2012 for the London Festival of Architecture.

Rashid’s enthusiasm for architecture and urban design is passionately communicated very quickly when he speaks about his origins ‘architecture seemed to fit in with my interests in the Arts and natural curiosity about making things… it was an easy decision to pursue it.’

As our conversation continues I ask him to expand on his experience as a young black male in the late nineties, developing and presenting work in an academic environment, ‘there was a consciousness at the time... that you were one of very few people of minority background in this academic context, but on the other hand I was lucky enough to have built up a network of Mentors... to establish a relationship with tutors, some of whom I went on to work for.

That was a strong factor that encouraged me to continue to pursue a career in Architecture.’ Rashid has now himself taken on the mentoring role for the new generation of young Architects (BME and otherwise). By teaching and taking part in a number of inner city workshops, he has helped to develop the aspirations of young people, who may otherwise be struggling in their choice of creative career.

After finishing his studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture (University College London) Rashid felt he had received a broad education, grounded in 20th century modernism and in particular, contemporary art as key reference in his work.

But, like many in Black people in his generation, Rashid felt that there was more for him to draw upon than what he was being exposed to in Architecture schools. ‘While I was finishing at the Bartlett I was lucky enough to meet David Adjaye, a very talented and well known Architect... and he asked me to join his office.’ Rashid worked in Adjaye’s office from 2001 to 2006 where he became a Project Architect.

‘It was a super intense experience for me... it was really fantastic, working on art installations and one off houses to working on big public projects, like the Ideas Store in east London.’

This was clearly a very rich stage in his development. Rashid speaks quite openly about Adjaye’s influence on him in terms of the emphasizing the experience of space, whether at the city scale or in a progressive sense and through working with light and materials.

This led in an organic way to his own Architectural practice through which he could develop projects and explore his ideas. Sometimes this has resulted in buildings and other times in art pieces or even writings about his interests in Architecture. He also began teaching part-time in this period and this interaction with students also had a strong influence on his own research.

Two years ago, whilst teaching at Nottingham University, Rashid and his teaching colleague, Adrian Friend organised a trip to the North-west province of South Africa for 36 students through a Non-Government Organisation (NGO) called Education Africa.

The organisation works with disadvantaged communities in Africa and facilitates projects between a local partner, who donates some facilities, i.e. land in this case, and a school of architecture, which designs and raises the money to build the project. ‘We spent about £50,000 on a Kindergarten centre which was about 600sqm... for which the students were the designers as well as builders... in this country it would have cost £1.5 million to build.’

They transformed what was a cramped tin shack for 30 students into a 600 sqm teaching facility for 150 students. The facility comprised of four large classrooms with playing areas, bathrooms, showers and a small community building. Over time the function of the building can change to incorporate many functions.

The NGO worked with the local community to develop a brief for the project and this formed the basis of the student designs for the building. ‘All the second year students developed the drawings package for the building once the design was finalised, which was a great experience for them... to go to a patch of land that was used as a rubbish dump and put up a building and see the impact it made on the local people’s lives…

'Within those 6 months that the students worked on the project... from design to completing the build, they had an education that money cannot buy because those guys from then on they had better ideas about how to build than year out students do.’

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