El Paso architect Rida Asfahani left El Paso in 2003 to go to college. After graduating, he landed a job at a big architecture firm in Boston, Mass., but he longed to return home and couldn’t shake the feeling.
Asfahani, 36, wanted to make his mark and do something special in El Paso – to build things here that aren’t typical and do his part to make the city more attractive to other young professionals like him.
He says he was tired of hearing his peers complain about the brain drain and how El Paso wasn’t Austin whenever he’d visit his hometown. So Asfahani, AIA, LEED AP, returned to El Paso in 2009 and founded architecture firm Root Architects two years later.
“More young developers here are wanting to do something different to move El Paso forward – to make this a hipper, more appealing place for other young professionals,” he says.
Today, Asfahani would probably be a doctor if it wasn’t for a car accident in 2001.
His parents came to the United States from Lebanon in the 1970s. His dad worked at a gas station in California and later attended medical school in Juárez. Shortly after the move, Asfahani was born in El Paso.
“My dad’s a doctor, and I was on the doctor track,” he says. “Then I got in a really bad car accident in 2001, right before I graduated. I came out of it deciding that I didn’t want to do the whole medical school thing anymore.”
As a kid, Asfahani had always drawn pictures and built stuff. During a college break, when he had the flu, he drew up schematics and built a detailed model city from Lego bricks.
“I had a little epiphany, and the light bulb went off,” he says.
Asfahani finished his studies, earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Texas at El Paso before enrolling at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he earned an architecture degree.
Today, he lives in Kern Place on the Westside and often bikes to work. He says he recently put his house up for sale and is looking for a place to live in Downtown.
The firm’s offices on Texas Street in Downtown are quirky. There is a Ping-Pong table with a net made of graph paper in the middle and a punching bag hanging in the back, which Asfahani and his four employees use for stress relief.
Asfahani’s most visible project right now is TI:ME, which is described as a hip, “non-traditional” shopping center. The firm designed the quirky center for young entrepreneurs Nick Salgado, Octavio Gomez and Rudy Valdes.
Built in part from shipping containers, the compact center, set to open next month, is hard to miss at Montecillo on North Mesa – the urban village being developed on the Westside by Richard Aguilar’s EPT Land Communities.
TI:ME is perhaps the purest expression yet of Asfahani’s desire to make the city more hip and more attractive to other young professionals.
In an interview that was as non-traditional as his architecture, Asfahani talked about his designs for the city, his roots and making a difference.
Q: So far, you have mostly worked with local young developers like TJ Karam, Nick Salgado, Octavio Gomez, Rudy Valdes and Lane Gaddy, many of whom have returned to their hometown like you. It’s almost like a club. How do you become a member?
You mean like a secret handshake? I’d show you but there are too many witnesses here.
No, seriously, it’s really neat. So if you ask somebody about Downtown revitalization, maybe somebody in their 40s or 50s, they’re probably going to be like: “Ah, pshaw. I’ve heard this like 10 times, and it never happened.” And they’re right. There would be a lot of talk and then nothing would happen.
All those guys are handing things off to their kids who’ve come home and see an opportunity to do something here. I have the opportunity, I have the means and I have the passion, why not? Let’s give it the real run and actually put our money where our mouth is.
You can just sit there and say this place sucks, I’m going to go to Dallas or Austin, or you can make a difference here. All these guys left for school and did what they needed to do, but now they have an opportunity to make a difference – and don’t you want that difference to be at home?
We are all roughly the same age. I’ve known TJ since he was like 5. His grandfather was the one who gave my dad the opportunity to be successful in El Paso, so there is some comradery.
Q: What about you? What impact do you want to have?
We’re always talking about how we’ve got to go to Phoenix or Austin or Seattle or Portland – all those places that are younger and more progressive. They say we don’t have cool places to live, we don’t have cool restaurants – everybody just wants to do track homes, crummy apartments and your typical strip malls.
I told myself what I’m going to do is focus on putting out a product that is just not available in El Paso. I don’t care if I make a lot of money or no money. What I want is to have people walk around my town and be proud of it and stop complaining about how it is not Austin.
Q: Your designs are striking, often with quirky details. Is there a method to the madness?
We have a Ping-Pong table in the office here and there’s usually like 12 bottles of Scotch out here to keep us sane.
No, seriously, it’s just really trying to figure out what people want and how they use spaces. Anybody who has any kind of formal training can build a nice building – that’s the easy part. It’s the implementation of that design in the context of the community that makes it hard.
How is somebody going to experience the building when they are there? I want you to have an experience in the space where you are just so overwhelmed experiencing it that you don’t have time to sit around and pick apart the architecture.
Like at TI:ME. You’re going to have a doughnut in one hand and a martini in the other, after a yoga class, and are going to be talking to the 800 other people that are doing the same thing. I want you to be lost in the space.
Q: You’re talking about impacting the community and people’s lifestyle by the things you build?
Hopefully, it looks good and holds up well and is constructed properly, but really what makes special places is how people interact with them. The whole purpose of this push to implement smart growth principles in El Paso is to try to get people here to understand something new and understand something different.
I mean, you don’t have to be spread out all over town. You don’t have to have four cars per household. You could legitimately live, work, sleep, play in a five-mile walking radius.
Q: El Paso’s conservative culture and mores stand in stark contrast to your work. Is the city ready for these kinds of developments?
Yeah. I think they have been dying for it for a long time. We haven’t communicated the design ideas as good as we could have.
Q: What is TI:ME? I’ve heard it described as smart growth, a non-traditional shopping center and even as the anti-shopping center.
I think of it as El Paso’s first attempt at a community development. It’s not your typical big box center where you have to go in your car to get anywhere. TI:ME is designed with a much greater density. You lay that thing out in a rectangle, you’re going to go to the coffee shop but, chances are, you’re not going to go to the little boutique at the end.
TI:ME is very intentionally designed so that people won’t just want to go there and leave but will want to stick around for a while. It’s a small development, but you can legitimately spend an entire day there.
The second phase of TI:ME is going to have a spa and yoga studio and smart offices. There is going to be a ton of vegetation and fountains.
When that’s done, you can show up for coffee in the morning, go get your nails done, get a haircut, go to the spa or do yoga, get lunch, do a little bit of shopping, have an afternoon cocktail, do a little more shopping, have a steak dinner and end the day at the bar.
You could even work in one of the office spaces and live in one of the nearby apartments. It’s about creating a small community – a great mix of people that want to stick around.
Q: Of the projects you’ve worked on so far, what’s your favorite?
It’s hard to say. It kind of depends on what day you catch me on. It’s weird. I get so particular about things – like the distance of the door handle from the latch. We’ve been making everything custom for TI:ME. We’re not buying doors off the shelf. They are all fabricated onsite.
Today, I’d say my favorite detail is the little pedestrian to-go window at the coffee and donut shop that is under construction at TI:ME. You’ll be able to just walk up and order a dozen donuts from a to-go window.
This TI:ME project has just been really great. The developers – Octavio, Rudy and Nick – have given me a great opportunity to help build their vision. What they’re doing is incredible.
When you talk to El Pasoans about what they don’t like about El Paso and why they leave, they’re talking about what? The want better places to eat, better places to shop, more fun things to do…
Q: Is that true?
That’s the perception. I hear from a lot of my friends that it is hard to recruit young professionals – that we lose a lot of young professionals because there aren’t enough good places to meet people or enough cool places to live.
Q: Why do you care to change that?
Because you actually get to make a difference here. You have a say in it. You’re not the person who says: “This place sucks, I’m leaving.”
When I lived in Boston I got to work on some really great projects with a big firm, but I also spent four months doing stair details for a high-rise building. Here I get to choose the projects we get to do, and have the opportunity to make a difference.
Q: What was your first project ever as an architect?
The first significant project I did when I started my firm here was with TJ Karam in 2011. I designed some apartments for him on the Eastside called 62 Squared.
Q: You mean the ones that look kind of like little, lime-green boxes?
They ended up being painted brown. It started out as sort of a joke. We did a detailed site plan and met with the city and one of the guys was like: “Yeah, This all looks good as long as you don’t paint it something like lime green.” And we were like…
Q: We’re painting it lime green, of course.
There were actually a few shades of green, but just something that would stick out. It’s located on a dead boring corner and anything you do just gets so lost.
We had a really tight budget so didn’t have much flexibility on the design, so we thought about what we could do to make them really pop out.
It was one of the first projects I had heard of with anybody trying to do something that wasn’t typical.
Q: Is that a bad word?
Typical? No. But in El Paso, there seems to be a very old school mentality when it comes to development. You stick with the girl you brought to the dance, right? These developers have their model that has been working, so why would they change anything?
Q: You’re talking about inexpensive tract housing in suburbia on the edges of the city?
They have their system, and it has been working for generations. But more young developers here are wanting to do something different to move El Paso forward – to make this a hipper, more appealing place for other young professionals.
Q: How many times do you have to take a design, crumple it up and throw it over your shoulder into a waste basket before you hit on the right one?
With TI:ME, I can’t tell you how many iterations we went through.
You should go into that room right now and look at what’s hanging there. A friend of mine came in one day and saw me going through the design process, and he left and came back with that present. It is a 100-pound punching bag.
Again, coming up with a really great design – anybody can do it. Coming up with one that looks amazing and actually fits the budget? Sometimes you need divine intervention to make those things happen.
Q: As the redevelopment of Downtown has accelerated, the age old question of preservation versus progress has come up again. What are your thoughts?
Take Lebanon, where my parents are from. My mom is from a small little mountain town called Baalbek that has the second-most complete collection of Roman ruins outside of the Acropolis.
In Lebanon, you’re talking about some serious history that goes back thousands of years. You can walk down streets that Jesus walked down.
I wrote my thesis on some of the revitalization efforts in Beirut. There is this whole idea of “Palimpsest.” The best way it was described to me is if you take a pencil and you write something on a piece of paper and you erase it and write something over it, you can still see what was underneath.
The architecture of Beirut is like that. Yeah, there are modern glass and steel buildings. but they are layered with the old.
You can’t just go in there and tear things down because you want to build a strip mall. It just doesn’t happen.
When you start talking about El Paso, there is some amazing historic architecture here. A lot of the architects I have met outside of El Paso, they all know about El Paso. They have all traveled to El Paso and have all seen the amazing buildings designed by Henry Trost.
Overall, I think the effort to keep the historic part of Downtown El Paso intact has held up pretty well. I don’t know of anybody who wants to knock down anything historic anymore.
Q: Do you have a favorite building in El Paso?
It’s hard to beat the Bassett Tower. It’s just done perfectly.
Q: Architects often just put their name on the door. Why Root Architects?
We want our architecture to be something that speaks to our roots. I came home. These are my roots.
I wanted to do something that was designed from the ground up and tied to the community. Not like: “Hey, I’m from New York and I designed a building in my New York studio and we’re plopping it in the middle of El Paso.”
Q: What’s next for Root Architects?
Well, right now we are finishing up phase two of TI:ME. I don’t know how specific I can be, but we’re also involved with some Downtown projects with mixed use of apartments and retail.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.