Automotive laboratories for General Motors, lavish Colorado mansions, public libraries and museums — architect Rafeeq Asad has worked on all kinds of projects.
No matter the structure, the 38-year-old associate at JLA Architects prides himself on a sophisticated knack for problem-solving, while always striving to make his projects “sexy."
Prior to JLA, the Miami native was an architecture and urban design fellow at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, before moving to Madison in 2013 to become an associate with the Madison-based architecture firm Flad Architects.
Asad is also on the city's Urban Design Commission, where he helps assess the design of proposed structures in Madison. He's also a mentor who strives to teach youth about architecture through groups like 100 Black Men of Madison and the Omega Psi Phi international fraternity.
Through all his work, Asad said he hopes to make architecture more reflective of the communities it serves. For architecture to thrive, he says there needs to be “inclusion on the design side, from the user side, from every aspect.”
How did you first get into architecture?
My first degree was in business, and my masters is in architecture. Business was cool. I liked the image of a businessman. But every day doing the same exact thing was just boring. I'm a more creative person.
I took a tour of (Florida A&M's architecture school) and I literally registered that same day...students were in there after hours. People were in there just drawing and cutting and gluing, and building models. I was like, 'This is so cool.'
Do professional architects get to do much gluing and drawing and model-building?
It's like one of those memes, you know? "This is what my mom thinks I do, this is what my friends think I do, this is what I actually do."
It depends on where you are. Flad is a larger firm. There were about 300 people in that office. You were a lot more focused, you had your one job. At JLA, I'm loving my experience. At a smaller firm, you're more hands-on. You don't have as many people, so you're covering more aspects of the design, from sketching and schematics, all the way through construction documents.
You told In Business Magazine about a year ago that you were trying to establish a Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects. Is that still something you’re working on?
I am. Working in a big firm like Flad, where we have 300 people in the office, and there only being four or five people who look like me, it can be challenging. But with NOMA, it was always that reprieve. You go to a NOMA conference with 800 African-American architects that own their own firms, that are doing great work. It's like a family reunion. You get that break, that motivation, that encouragement to see it through.
The hardest part about that here is that in order to get certain chapters, you need certain numbers. We don't really have those numbers, definitely not in Madison....we might have less than ten (black architects) within the whole state.
What kind of a role do you play on the UDC?
When the opportunity was first presented to me, I think the mayor was definitely encouraging more minorities to get involved. As a minority, I definitely wanted to make sure we had a voice at the table.
A lot of the times, I find myself being one of the few trying to move things in a different direction from some of my colleagues. Not to say that it’s that stark of a contrast, but sometimes I’m more in favor of the contemporary styles that don’t necessarily blend in with what’s currently there.
I want to bring something new and exciting. It could be from the fact that I’m not from Madison, I’m from a bigger city. I can see the benefits of having a big modern building juxtaposed with more traditional architecture.
Debates over new buildings can certainly get fierce. Are there ways we can have better-informed, more nuanced discussions about building proposals?
Just being informed about the overall project, the "why" of the project. Sometimes we have to look outside of ourselves and realize that a lot of these projects are for the greater good. I might not want to live next to a 14-story building, but then if I choose to live downtown, I might have to expect that there's going to be density, there's going to be traffic, there's going to be noise, there's going to be people.
I don't think people realize how many people are slated to move into Madison over the next 20 to 30 years. There's a reason apartments are going up every day. There's a reason why density is going up by certain numbers. Nobody would invest in these multi-million dollar structures if there wasn't a need for it.
As for preserving neighborhoods, that's definitely important. We look at those issues. We definitely wouldn't destroy a neighborhood to approve a building for monetary reasons.
But we have to look at the whole picture. Does it follow the design ordinances, in terms of signage, in terms of light, in terms of traffic, in terms of all kinds of different things? We have to look at it holistically. Not everyone does that. They might focus on just the one thing.
I feel like these conversations can be tough because of how subjective architecture is. So many arguments boil down to, "This building is ugly."
I definitely agree. We have 10 people on the UDC, and we often get 10 different opinions. Like I said, I tend to be modern, so I find myself going against the grain. You can't design a 1920s building in 2019. The materials are not the same. Construction methods are not the same. Regulations are not the same. Codes change.
Also, the further we go into the future, the taller buildings are going to get. You're not getting any more land, so you've got to up. A lot of people, it seems, they don't like tall buildings. They want the small, cottage-y two-story maximum buildings. And that's fine for certain neighborhoods. But on East Washington (Avenue), you're going to have big buildings.
A lot of the times that's where the “ugly” comes from. It’s just, "I don't like the size."
You're an architect, you're on the UDC. How else do you spend your time?
I work a lot with mentors. I want to increase the number of minorities in architecture, so I like to go to schools to talk about what it is to be an architect.
I'm involved in 100 Black Men in Madison — they have Project SOAR, where we go and do things in schools. I'm also a member of Omega Psi Phi. We have a 501(c)3 as part of the foundation, and I'm the program director for mentoring there.
Through those avenues, we can get to kids and mentor them professionally and socially. We expose them to lawyers, businesspeople, architects, engineers. A lot of those students, if you ask any of them what they want to be, they want to be in the NBA or NFL. We have a unique opportunity to show them real life. The average of an actual student going to the pros is very small. So what's your plan B?