Meet architect Ishtiaq Rafiuddin and his studio Undecorated

The lateral thinking of the architecture studio Undecorated shakes Detroit

The American Midwest has shaken up the world of architecture. Among the emerging practices leading the way for change is Detroit-based Undecorated, founded by Ishtiaq Rafiuddin and featured here as part of our Next Generation 2022 project

Ishtiaq Rafiuddin founded his architecture firm Undecorated in New York in 2017 before moving to Detroit a year later. Now with five employees, the studio is thriving and he has fallen in love with the city of the Midwest, which after four years at REX in New York, he is concentrating to concentrate for the time being. “I am inspired to work in Detroit, a truly American city with an incredible history that now requires questions and creative problem-solving to stimulate investment and inspire communities,” he says.

Conducting thorough research and research around each of his assignments 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 offer a solution. It can be very messy. We need to embrace the process by asking basic questions, letting go of preconceived ideas and aesthetics, and [we have to] Find and accept the order that emerges from chaos. At least that’s the ambition. ‘ This means that for him architecture is primarily an exercise in thinking and not an aesthetic one. “A bit like laboratory work,” he says.

Ishtiaq Rafiuddin and Undecorated: Reinterpreting Detroit Architecture

Ishtiaq Rafiuddin from undecorated. Photography: Hugo Yu

This attitude can lead to innovative solutions, as one of his latest works shows, a Detroit housing project called The Caterpillar in the Core City district. The challenge of creating a lot of volume and light for a housing estate was mastered by using the modest Quonset hut typology (a light, prefabricated, semi-cylindrical, corrugated galvanized steel structure).

Rafiuddin used prefabricated elements from Virginia manufacturer SteelMaster to produce a single “hut” with eight units – a mixture of living and living / working spaces. By reinterpreting this humble, commercial shell, the architect created a series of bright, spacious interiors that, with their high vaulted ceilings and skylights, feel homely yet dramatic. The project for the local developer Prince Concepts is surrounded by an urban forest by the award-winning landscape architect Julie Bargmann. The result is cost and time efficient, but still generous in terms of spatial qualities.

The Caterpillar case in Detroit. Photography: Jason Keen

“Architecture had a responsibility to improve everyone’s quality of life and architects had great visions to prove it. We have lost this spirit over the decades, ”remembers Rafiuddin. That is why he is often inspired by modernist architecture, in which he feels well represented, the spirit of reconstruction and questioning.

However, our era brings its own set of challenges, including different attitudes towards architecture, at least in the United States. “In general, architecture isn’t as celebrated in the US as it is in Europe,” he says. “There is a lack of architecture and architects in medium-sized businesses. The middle class forms the largest part of the built environment and therefore offers the most opportunities. I keep asking myself why and how I / we can change and develop this. ‘ With Rafiuddin’s lateral thinking, anything is possible. §

5k mixed-use scheme in Detroit

Helipad in Mexico City. Photography: Rafael Gamo

Magnet restaurant in Detroit. Photography: Chris Miele

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