Architectural prodigy Rashiq Muhamad Ali is known for his unique experiential and thoughtful design style. Educated at AA London and guided by and worked with Zaha Hadid herself, this 43-year-old has achieved unprecedented success, and this is why…
Written by Megha Agrawal
Location Courtesy: Me Dubai
Once in a while some individuals are born with an instinct to convert innate talent into a passion and turn the passion into expertise. Through some miraculous cosmic alchemy, they are completely in sync emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually with their vocation which transcends their work to a calling. Rashiq Muhamad Ali, architect by choice, talent, and destiny is one of these rare individuals.
Influences and inspirations
Dressed in signature black, Rashiq exudes an enigmatic aura. His love for architectural design expresses itself throughout the conversation without him actually stating it out loud. “I am one of those people who has always known their mind,” he says. His desire to be an architect manifested at the age of four when his parents moved from India to Abu Dhabi at a pivotal time, when His Highness Sheikh Zayed was transforming Abu Dubai through urban planning. How a change in the built environment can change the fate of a nation and its people was something that was subconsciously embedded into Rashiq’s psyche very early on.
Travels and teachings
Since then, all of Rashiq’s life choices consciously and subconsciously converged to make his ambition a reality. He took a year off before university to travel across India, studying the works of Indian titans, Charles Correa and BV Doshi. From small housing projects to national monuments, he visited the sites of these design pioneers.
Deeply inspired by Charles Correa’s design philosophy, Rashiq learned that architecture is not just about creating impressive facades. “A great architect is very thoughtful of how the interior space of a building is designed, caring about what life is going to be like within that building and defining the spaces, sections, and flow between them, elevating that space from an average functional staple to an enriching, wondrous and positive environment.”
The early years
Continuing his education, Rashiq decided to enroll in the Sushant School of Art and Architecture in New Delhi, falling in love with the campus and the school’s approach to architectural design. Not afraid to experiment, Rashiq focused on developing his unique sensibilities, design language, and aesthetics. In his first year, he was guided to the works of Zaha Hadid, the pioneering architect of modern times, with iconic designs like the London Aquatics Center, Heydar Aliyev Center in Azerbaijan, and Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi. Intensely curious, Rashiq decided to learn more about her and soon after decided that someday he was going to work with Zaha.
After college and a year-long stint with the Indian architect, Pradeep Sachdeva, Rashiq came to Dubai, wanting to understand the actual construction process as his designs got realized physically. Hired by HOK (Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum), he worked onsite at the Dubai Festival City Mall, interacting with the construction team, solving real-time problems, understanding the nuances of every design decision as work progressed. “I studied architecture in the university, but I became an architect on that site,” he recalls.
Impact of space
Rashiq explains the nature of space design and how it can affect our perception and well-being. “Not mere aesthetics, every element has a great impact on the user experience. The high ceiling of a cathedral immediately fills us with a sense of a divine presence. Similarly, hotel lobbies are designed to be large and open to impart a sense of grandeur. Big hotel chains, for example, even use ‘scent branding’ filling the atriums of their properties with a signature scent so that users start to associate that particular fragrance with the brand.”
Rashiq states that design decisions must be undertaken with utmost care and accountability. All buildings are designed with durability in mind. People envision their dream homes and workspaces and plan to spend a lifetime inside it, hoping to pass it on to the next generation. An architect’s work impacts generations. “Long term studies have shown that children growing up in well-planned spaces are more composed and better decision-makers than children living in poorly-designed spaces,” he adds.
Similarly, he emphasizes the value of high-end facade designs and how they can help accelerate a community. Iconic landmarks can appreciate property value – like Burj Khalifa elevating Downtown, upping property values and serving as a benchmark for building quality all around.
An experiential architect
Rashiq strives to design thoughtful, positive spaces in harmony with the location, interweaving natural elements like sunlight, windflow, textures that would provide a multi-sensory experience for the user. “I always push myself as an experiential architect because I love the power a space can offer.”
His style allows him to bring unique experiences and invigorate the senses. He remembers planting a mature orange tree in a courtyard of a villa. Opening the windows of the house invited a citrusy fragrance, tying the scent memory of citrus to ‘home-away-from-home’ for the owners.
Similarly, Rashiq’s design of Al Barari Project in Dubai, during his stint with 10 Design, is a prime example of bringing uniqueness and thoughtfulness to a residential development. The houses are flooded with natural light, without the harsh glare of the desert sun. Good ventilation keeps the temperatures down, prolonging the feeling of ‘outdoor comfort’. Views from the apartments frame the lush outdoor landscaping creating the feeling of a verdant oasis. Experiential architecture at its best, Barari remains a great favourite with Dubai residents and imparts the experience of being in a forest in the middle of a desert.
Rashiq always comes up with bespoke, innovative designs for his clients. Just like his guide Zaha Hadid, who could envision curves, and openness where others saw only rigid lines and tight spaces, he breaks known norms of architecture, melding traditional, holistic contemporary elements. His work is led by research at all phases and experiments through ‘Parametric Design Principles’ – a design approach historically adopted by the likes of Antonio Gaudi. Today, pioneer architects like Masimiliano Fuksas have used this method to design Shenzhen Baon International Airport. Using computer simulations by inputting parameters, it allows architects analyse their designs and predict patterns.
Delivering ground-breaking work in Europe, Middle East, India and China, Rashiq is not bound by typologies or geography. Capable of delivering designs that integrate the country’s culture and social fabric, he is one of the most versatile and change-adaptive architects of our time.
“In design, one must know the rules to break them.” Behind Rashiq’s norm breaking design language is a solid foundation laid at the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architects – AA, London. Driven by a desire to work with industry frontrunners like Zaha Hadid and Patrick Schumacher, Rashiq got into this very exclusive and hard-to-crack school and experimented under the tutelage of Patrick Schumacher, who encouraged him to bring his experiments to Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) where he was promoted to Lead Architect in just two years. He continued his exceptional trajectory, gearing up to be at the eye of the incredible storm of the ‘China Boom’.
The Beijing affair
Post 2012 Olympics in Beijing, China saw a massive design resurgence, developing urban projects at supersonic speed. Rashiq moved to Beijing, working as Head Architect for ZHA Projects, China.
Designing the iconic landmarks, Wangjing SOHO and Galaxy SOHO gracing the Beijing skyline he garnered awards like the 2014 Emporis Skyscraper Award, Excellence Award by China Tall Buildings Awards, Zhan Tianyou Award for Engineering Excellence, RIBA International Award and 2014 CASC Awards for his team, putting him in the league of the finest architects we have today.
In a bold, unconventional, and experimental move, his team designed the landscape element before the actual building. The people around started using the park and by the time the building came up, the community felt that the project was an integral part of the neighbourhood.
There were other great moments in China. One such was the Chongqing project where the government wanted a unique landmark tower for their skyline. Initially awarded to another firm, their design lacked a seminal element. Rashiq and his team submitted a different design, so cognizant of client requirement that their proposal was swiftly approved and yet another seminal work from Rashiq’s drafting table made it to Chongqing skyline.
After six years with Zaha Hadid Architects, Rashiq moved to Hong Kong, working with another architecture giant – 10 Design. The next two years were fun-filled and tremendous learning experiences as he continued to deliver exceptional works like the Al Barari Project in Dubai.
The Silk Route
Then the urge to travel hit again. This time exploring rural China, Rashiq documented his travels on reel. He was as much a novelty for rural China as it was for him. He laughs as he reminisces, “Villagers would rub my brown skin to see if the colour would wash off.”
Travelling along the historical trade route, he visited cities like Kashgar and Urumqi. Categorizing travel as an essential part of a designer’s evolutionary journey, Rashiq encourages every designer to explore the world continuously from different perspectives. He says, “A lot of human learning is subconscious and all our experiences shape and enrich our thought processes. To be a great designer, read about everything, experience everything, know about everything, except design. Because if you are reading about design, you are reading about solutions without knowing what the problem is.”
The interiors world
After this second hiatus, Rashiq moved back to Dubai joining an interior design firm. With his Midas touch, the firm was soon delivering unique solutions, most remarkable being the University of Sharjah’s dining hall project. 10,000 square metres of space was elevated with a radical redefinition from a standard mess hall to a place allowing interactions and activities at multiple levels – digitized amphitheatre for presentations, formal bookable meeting spaces, workstations for students to continue working during their breaks, informal lounges and classroom spaces for faculty and students to interact. The job got him and his firm top nominations at the CID Awards in 2021.
The continued evolution
Rashiq forayed into entrepreneurship in 2020. Eager to learn the business development and execution aspect of a creative business, he established RqMA – ‘Rashiq Muhamad Ali Architecture plus Design’. From inception, RqMA has worked on diverse iconic projects that will, no doubt, be future global benchmarks for architects. These include high-end luxury resorts in UAE and Africa, a 300-plus-metre tower on Sheikh Zayed Road, residential complexes in Dubai Islands and Jumeirah and more. RqMA’s interior designing vertical stays busy with mall refurbishments, top-of-the-line office designs, restaurants, TV studios, health clubs and so on.
Rashiq aims to make experiential architecture RqMA’s USP. He wants to, “Create spaces that make the clients so happy that they look forward to coming back home instead of hanging out with friends in clubs and restaurants!” Like the great Frank Lloyd Wright, he wants to get into product design as well, in order to design furniture and interior detailing. He wants to test limits of how far he can go into the design aspect within the building environment.
All this said, Rashiq is firmly grounded and recognizes the pitfalls of running a new business and reveals that he has a mentor. “It is good to learn from your mistakes, but it is even better to learn from someone else’s mistakes.”
With 19 years of experience in high-end architecture, Rashiq wants to avoid being branded as a specialist in only one kind of design. “The problem with getting stereotyped is that, soon, you will be asked to create the same designs again and again.” Instead, he wants to work with clients who are looking for innovation and are open to rethinking staple designs from scratch. He wants to take up community-centred projects like schools – a place where children spend a good chunk of their formative years, and hospitals – a place of both great joys and tragedies. He recalls designing an entire shopping district in Baghdad called Baghdad Gate which was a fun project that helped accelerate a community. “Do you add more value to the people around that area? Or are you negating something already there?” is the question that dictates his quest for innovation. He notes that newer firms sometimes severely underbid to win contracts and then cut corners in design, materials, even engineering. “I wish to introduce a body to regularize the creative industry business rules that will work for the benefit, and create a win-win, for clients and designers.”
Dubai as home
Alongside his future, Rashiq is excited about Dubai’s future too. “A great multicultural centre, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have all the hallmarks of cities growing in the right direction. A land of superlatives, with the tallest, largest structures in the world, Dubai has matured from its early days and is now expanding in a more purposeful and community-centric way.”
He appreciates the sustainable initiatives in UAE and hopes to see greater government support for sustainable practices in the construction industry. The carbon footprint of a building is dependent on its materials and energy consumption. “If world governments incentivize sustainable material usage for contractors and developers, it will bring about sweeping change,” he remarks.
Advice and mentorship
Always learning, Rashiq feels a sense of duty to pass on his extensive knowledge to the next generation and is currently mentoring four promising architects. “Architecture is an overwhelming field. People expect instant success. It’s crucial to realize that you need to go through the steps to achieve success. There are no shortcuts,” he says. He advises all young architects to gain work experience with an architectural firm before striking out on their own.
He also visits institutions around the world like Hong Kong University, Tsinghua University (Beijing), American University in Sharjah (AUS), Architectural Association Visiting School Program etc as guest lecturer and sometimes as a jury member.
Rashiq believes that architects need to have good problem-solving skills, be team players, as well have leadership qualities. “Real life problems will crop up as the physical development of a design starts. Putting a structure together is a very collaborative effort. The consultant (architect and engineering teams) and the contractor need to lead their teams and tackle problems that crop up to achieve the level of perfection expected from their work.”
“The times of the star architect are changing.” Architecture is becoming more collaborative as the complexities and scales of the projects are exponentially increasing. “You need to be more open and willing to listen to your experts. Trusting your engineers is essential. I trust my team completely and know that they can take on ambitious designs.”
A broad band
Multitalented Rashiq is also an excellent musician and photographer. A genuine tech lover, the metaverse and AI excite him as potential future tools for designers to research, predict, analyse patterns and showcase their designs. He is also the president of a BNI (Business Network International) chapter to help entrepreneurs network and leverage business expertise.
Rashiq has inspired his seven-year-old daughter to be an architect, as well. It is not a profession for the faint-hearted though. “True dedication is needed for the craft, and a healthy amount of ego is necessary, as well, to produce great work. The ego keeps us from quitting, pushes us to try harder and gives us the strength to defend our work.”
When asked what he wants to do when he retires, he smiles and says, “I want to design buildings.” Rashiq Mohammed Ali has only just begun, and like the fabled Howard Roarke in Ayn Rand’s noted book, The Fountainhead, we can only wait in anticipation to see, “the will of man, made visible.”