RA Projects at 1:54, Architecture in Focus: Rashid Ali

While 1:54 is an art fair devoted to Contemporary African Art, what room is there for architecture at the fair and in looking at artistic production on the African continent? The architect Rashid Ali is situated in the two spheres, in the sphere of 1:54 and in the critical conversation of what architecture means for the African continent.

As 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair returns to Somerset House this year, the fair will once again feature the design of RA Projects. Rashid Ali founded the London based architecture and design studio RA Projects in 2009. In 2014 Ali held the exhibition Mogadishu – Lost Moderns at the Mosaic Rooms with photographer Andrew Cross, which was also exhibited at Dak’Art 2014.

RA Projects’ presence at 1:54 follows in footsteps of the inaugural design by award winning architect David Adjaye in 2013. Previously Ali has designed both the second edition of 1:54 in London, and the inaugural New York edition of 1:54 in May 2015. Design at 1:54 is central to expanding conceptions of cultural production, and to amplifying the conversation between art and architecture, something Ali is concerned with. While working for Adjaye Associates, Ali navigated the threshold between art and architecture through his collaboration with artists Chris Ofili and Olafur Eliasson.

I met Ali on a rainy Wednesday morning at the Café in the Royal Institute of British Architect’s building. Increasingly architecture is in dialogue with art, noting the presence at the 56th Venice Biennale of interventions such as Tunisian artist Nidhal Chamekh’s The Anti-clock Project and Ala Younis’ Plan For A Greater Baghdad. For Ali, working on public projects such as 1:54 “present an opportunity to develop transferable ideas,” on spatial and material concepts that could inform other projects and ideas on a larger scale.

In a number of Ali’s projects, there is a sense of negotiating multiple scales and temporalities with his interventions. As his practice values the dialogue between the past and the present, his design of 1:54 negotiates Somerset House with a sense of sensitivity towards the qualities of the existing structure. In the 2014 edition of 1:54 the furniture in the bookshop and at the reception units Ali created by were held in tension with the heaviness of Somerset House, and its scale and form were juxtaposed sensitively, relative to the scale and contemporary aesthetics of the interventions. Housed in the East Wing of Somerset House, the bookshop for the last edition of 1:54 was also bold in its use of colour and inventive in its use of space. Moreover the interventions he designs for the Fair are often site specific and respond to the demands of the existing structures, from the historic wings of Somerset House to the brick structure of Pioneer Works in New York, the reclaimed iron works factory where 1:54 New York was held.

Reception counter, 1:54 Contemporary Arts Fair, New York, 2015
Reception counter, 1:54 Contemporary Arts Fair, New York, 2015

Ali of course is not your ordinary architect. Other than RA Project’s nominations for Young Architect of the Year in 2008 and 2011, Ali and his practice seem to navigate multiple worlds and temporalities. While his exhibition Mogadishu – Lost Moderns was centred on the Somali capital, it also opened up possibilities for the architect to reflect more widely on the changing cityscapes across Africa and in particular Eastern Africa, from Nairobi to Asmara and Addis Ababa. It is clear that Ali and his practice are conscious of the past and present, a sense of being cognizant and situating oneself to the demands of their surroundings. In the course of his research, he explains that reading the context of architectural interventions is of great importance to him, of reading the various dimensions of the city: social, cultural and political. For him it is not about responding to the city with grand gestures, rather it is to highlight certain narratives and qualities in their particular African setting. With Mogadishu – Lost Moderns, the point of reference and departure was the interrogation of the cultural value of certain buildings and city spaces within the process of the transition to independence, and the expression of statehood through architecture and built form. Local building traditions incorporating the use of local materials such as coral have since been replaced by glass in the city’s attempts to rebuild. Ali contemplates in this rapid change in African cities, perhaps the model of aspiration – based on a Chinese or Gulf State consumerism – is not only unsustainable but also fails to be responsive to the past architecture of Africa, and a period in Africa that was key in shaping collective national and transnational identities. As an architect, Ali demonstrates that he is wholly in touch with the nuances of economic and cultural transformations in emerging cities and economies.

Fin House, London, RA Projects, 2015
Fin House, London, RA Projects, 2015

Of course, it would be possible for one to speak of the modernisation of African cities with a sense of despair but in order to develop appropriate contextual responses Ali believes that its necessary understand and document the life and historical transformation of the city. He gives Addis Ababa as an example of a city that ten to fifteen years ago incorporated urban agriculture in its city spaces – only for such an urban practice and characteristic to be erased and the land appropriated for real estate development. The complexities in spatial development in cities are undeniably linked to notions of collective memory, which Ali’s practice and research investigate.

How does one then navigate the trauma of a city such as Mogadishu? Ali states that this is a city built on multiplicity, characterised by hybridity and various influences. Here the mix of Arab, Indian and African influences hark back to a time when Mogadishu was a trading city with strong cultural and economic ties to other regions.

How does the city recover? And when it does what remains and endures? “With a city like Mogadishu, it is difficult to document its trauma and what constitutes both the city and the trauma afflicting it, particularly when the city has been altered in a radical way”, Ali said.

Beyond Mogadishu and projects concerned with interrogating the typologies of the city, Ali’s practice takes on an international character working not only in the United Kingdom but in Africa and Latin America as well. Recently he has been asked to design a boarding school in Somalia in the highland town of Sheikh. In describing this project, he speaks passionately of the need to revive educational infrastructure, corresponding to a “desire to deliver high quality education”. The school is tied to a legacy of academic excellence, established in the city in the era of British Colonial Rule.

Education is something Ali is immersed in multiple ways. Having received his architectural training at the Bartlett School, University College London and a Masters in City Design and Social Science from the London School of Economics. Additionally he has served as a educator himself, lecturing at a number of architectural institutions such as the Nottingham Institute of Architecture, the Bartlett (UCL), Oxford Brookes, the Welsh School of Architecture and the University of Liverpool until last year. Today he serves as Senior Lecturer at the University of East London and as the Founder and Editor of the pioneering journal P.E.A.R: Paper for Emerging Architectural Research. Without a doubt, Ali is committed to delivering high quality education himself, even taking architecture students from Nottingham University to South Africa to gain practical experience. He displays a desire not only for his students to situate themselves in the practicalities of architecture, but also within the settings and peoples that such ideas and propositions will come to effect.

Bookshop, 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair, London, 2014
Bookshop, 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair, London, 2014

This is where Ali’s success lies, in his own perceptiveness of what is required to remain relevant in a world in which the transformation of urban landscapes shifts the terrain on respond with relevant architectural interventions. His practice is informed by both the past and the present and in it architecture acts as conduit for communicating the multiplicity of the sphere and worlds he lives in and is responding to.

Mukami Kuria

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