Undecorated architecture studio lateral thinking shakes Detroit
The American Midwest has turned the world of architecture upside down. Among the emerging practices pioneering change is Detroit-based Undecorated, founded by Ishtiaq Rafiuddin and featured here as part of our Next Generation 2022 project.
Ishtiaq Rafiuddin founded his architectural design studio Undecorated in 2017 in New York City, before moving to Detroit a year later. Now five strong, the studio is thriving and he has fallen in love with the Midwestern city, where he has chosen to focus his efforts for now, after four years with REX in New York. “I am inspired to work in Detroit, a truly American city with an incredible history that now requires questions and creative problem solving to spark investment and inspire communities,” he says.
Carrying out in-depth research and investigation around each of its commissions is at the heart of Rafiuddin’s approach. ‘[It] is based on the idea that we don’t know what we don’t know, ”he says. “It’s a process where we have to critically analyze the core of the design problem in order to come up with a solution. It can be very messy. We need to embrace the process by asking fundamental questions, letting go of preconceptions and aesthetics, and [we have to] seeking as well as accepting the order that emerges from chaos. At least that is the ambition. This means that for him, architecture becomes above all an exercise in reflection, rather than an aesthetic exercise. “Kind of like lab work,” he says.
Ishtiaq Rafiuddin and Undecorated: reinventing architecture in Detroit
Ishtiaq Rafiuddin from Undecorated. Photography: Hugo Yu
This attitude can lead to innovative solutions, as one of his latest works shows, a housing project in Detroit called The Caterpillar, in the Core City neighborhood. The challenge of providing sufficient volume and light for a residential development was met by making the most of the humble Quonset hut typology (a lightweight, semi-cylindrical, prefabricated, corrugated galvanized steel structure).
Rafiuddin used prefabricated elements from Virginia-based manufacturer SteelMaster to produce a single “hut” containing eight units – a mix of residential and living / working spaces. By reinventing this modest, commercial-grade hull, the architect has achieved a series of light and airy interiors that feel at home, yet dramatic, with their high vaulted ceilings and skylights. The project, for local developer Prince Concepts, is surrounded by an urban forest by award-winning landscape architect Julie Bargmann. The result is economical and fast, but generous in spatial qualities.
The Caterpillar housing in Detroit. Photography: Jason Keen
“Architecture had a responsibility to improve the quality of everyone’s life, and architects pursued great visions to prove it. We have lost that spirit over the decades, ”recalls Rafiuddin. This is why he is often inspired by modernist architecture, which, according to him, represents this spirit of reconstruction and questioning.
Yet our times bring their own challenges, including a distinction in attitudes towards architecture, at least in the Kingdom of the United States. “In general, architecture is not as celebrated in the United States as it is in Europe,” he says. “Architecture and architects are lacking in the middle class. The middle class constitutes the bulk of the built environment and therefore offers the most opportunities. I keep asking myself why and how I / we can change this and evolve. With Rafiuddin’s lateral thinking, anything is possible. §
5k Mixed Use Program in Detroit
Helipad in Mexico City. Photography: Rafael Gamo